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Assessing Penn State’s Energy Future

A Case Study of the West Campus Steam Plant Controversy

Following the eruption of controversy over a proposed natural gas pipeline route through the State College Highlands Neighborhood to supply Penn State’s West Campus Steam Plant, Denice Wardrop, director of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, committed to conducting a stakeholder assessment about what happened and what could be learned from this process. In December 2013, Dr. Wardrop convened the current assessment report, which integrates interviews with interested and involved parties from Penn State, the State College Borough government, and local residents. A public forum was held on Sept. 2, 2014.

Download the PDF of the full report

Report Summary

The recent decision to replace Penn State University’s West Campus Steam Plant’s coal-burning boilers with natural gas and the associated gas pipeline installation led to a spiraling conflict with numerous local stakeholders. This conflict arose amidst, and is illustrative of, larger issues faced by Penn State in fulfilling commitments to be more open, transparent, and engaging in a post-Sandusky era. This assessment uses the pipeline controversy as a case study to work toward establishing an open and transparent decision-making process for Penn State’s internal long-range, energy-related planning and explore the development of a broader University and local community energy plan. The assessment continues a dialogue initiated by the pipeline controversy, allowing various perspectives to be heard in an ongoing process to build understanding about local energy and decision-making systems.This conversation sets the stage for meeting eventual greenhouse gas-reduction goals and identifying unrealized opportunities in the regional energy portfolio. 

The 23 stakeholders interviewed highlight various past and current issues surrounding the gas pipeline (e.g., costs, benefits, and risks) and University energy choices (e.g., environmental, technical, operational, and jurisdictional issues). Intertwined with these issues, interviewees echo concerns (aimed at the University, State College Borough, and local residents) about opaque and exclusive decision-making processes, time pressures, information transfer, transparency and trust, power dynamics, misunderstanding of key terms, institutional/cultural structures, and lack of participation. 

Moving forward, this assessment has identified positive developments for furthering University and/or regional energy planning goals. Locally, there is a high level of commitment/passion for engagement on energy and sustainability related issues and possible consensus on critical energy topics. Overall, interviewees believe in the importance of the town/gown relationship and mutual education and that Penn State can be a leader in energy and sustainability. This discussion is building momentum, more information is being shared, and stakeholders generally desire a higher degree of collaboration. 
At the same time, critical questions must be answered: How can the issues be better framed and analyzed? How can key terms be fully understood? How can an underlying mistrust and the sense of “us vs. them” be addressed? How can costs, benefits, and risks be evaluated? What does “transparency” mean, and how can it be achieved? What kind of energy-related goals can various institutions commit to, and how? How can existing organizational and individual cultural differences be reconciled? What are the implementation considerations, including potential legal impediments or funding concerns? 

To capitalize on these developments and explore questions, the following approach could be undertaken:
Step 1 - Reflect, discuss, and learn: In addition to discussing issues raised in this report, parties should reflect and work with each other to learn more about energy-related issues and potential planning processes. If there is support for moving forward, step 2 could be discussed and initiated.
Step 2 - Convene a small, diverse team to examine a potential process: one to two representatives from each of the major stakeholder groups should form a team, facilitated by a trained neutral, to decide whether the time is right to begin a broader, more collaborative energy planning process. 
Step 3 - Broaden the process to explore long-range University and/or regional energy planning: If step 2 shows a likelihood of success, the team could then initiate a broader energy planning process. 
Contact Lara Fowler or Alex Wiker for more information about the report or public meeting.
Public Forum

On Tuesday, September 2, 2014 from 6:30-8:45pm, members from the local community met at the Alumni Fireside Lounge in the Nittany Lion Inn to discuss the recently released report on local energy: “Assessing Penn State’s Energy Future: Case Study of the West Campus Steam Plant Controversy.” The meeting purpose was to “reflect, discuss, and learn” by presenting an overview of the report, answering questions about the report, and discussing issues raised by the report in the context of larger processes taking place at Penn State. After an introduction from Denice Wardrop (Director of the Sustainability Institute) and presentations by Lara Fowler (report co-author) on framing the report and Alex Wiker (report co-author) providing an overview of the report, attendees participated in Q&A and discussion facilitated by Lara Fowler.

Download the Sept. 2, 2014, public forum outputs and the presentation.

Resources on local energy (listed alphabetically):

Getting to Zero Conference:
New Leaf Initiative:
Penn State Office of Physical Plant Energy:
Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment:
SEDA-Council of Governments Energy:
State College Borough Sustainability:
Steady State College:
Transition Town State College: