Caltech operates its own power plant to generate electricity, and now exports more electricity than it imports. Meanwhile, consumption of electricity on campus has decreased over the long term. And campus studies and infrastructure investments are laying the groundwork for a significant change in utility systems that would reduce emissions.
In 2021, Caltech exported more electricity than it imported for the fourth time in five years. Caltech's cogeneration plant, which produces both electricity and steam for utilities from natural gas, met 68 percent of campus electricity needs in 2021. Natural-gas-powered fuel cells provided 30 percent of Caltech's electricity and solar panels generated 2 percent. Caltech does draw power from Pasadena's electric grid, but over the course of a year, 100 percent of net electricity is produced onsite.
More than 50 years ago, Caltech became an early adopter of cogeneration, or combined heat and power. This efficient technology integrates natural gas, steam turbines, and a steam generator. The current plant, Caltech's third, was celebrated as "the most efficient and cleanest burning engine that we've ever had" when it was installed in 2003.
Caltech added a new fuel cell in 2021, helping diversity campus electricity sources and build resiliency.
In 2021, Caltech brought more rooftop solar power into its energy portfolio, adding 200 kilowatts of installed power capacity to reach a total of 2 megawatts. Rooftop solar power meets 2 percent of Caltech's electricity demand.
In 2022, new cooling towers and pumps improved the efficiency, seismic safety, and quietness of equipment at the central utility plant. The campus's electrical distribution network is also being improved.
Caltech is exploring paths to decarbonizing electricity and thermal systems. Technicians have completed thermal and air-handling studies of campus buildings. Modernizing and decarbonizing the campus will turn from study to action, with a goal of bringing significant change to Caltech utility systems while supporting all research and academic needs.
In a collaborative effort with 32 other leading U.S. institutions, Caltech helped launch the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, an initiative to invest a cumulative total of one billion dollars to fund energy-efficiency upgrades on campuses across the country. Caltech was the first institution to make the commitment to use a self-managed green revolving fund for sustainability improvements as part of the challenge.
Caltech's green revolving loan fund is called the Caltech Energy Conservation Investment Program (CECIP). CECIP is the process by which capital to implement energy conservation measures is borrowed from the endowment and, through a rigorous system of measurement and verification, savings are moved from the utility budget back to the endowment.
CECIP has contributed to campus utility savings of nearly $20 million over the past decade.
Electricity Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Total electricity consumption declined 5 percent between 2016 and 2021. However, power use in 2021 was 5 percent higher than in 2020, with the return of many employees to campus and the opening of the new Chen Neuroscience Research Building. Green building practices and utility infrastructure improvements contributed to a decrease of 3 percent in the amount of energy used in buildings per square foot, which reached its lowest level since 2015.
Predictably, Caltech emissions rose between 2020 and 2021 as campus activities resumed. Total greenhouse gas emissions have decreased 29 percent between 2008 and 2021. Caltech has incentivized more sustainable commuting practices, reduced Institute-funded air travel, and reduced how much energy its buildings require. Building operation and the energy generation that supports it are the greatest sources of emissions.
Research Leadership: Managed Electric Vehicle Charging Technology
Professor Steven Low’s NetLab research laboratory invented smart technology for charging many electric vehicles simultaneously while optimizing power flow. Low's graduate student Zach Lee commercialized the technology through startup PowerFlex Systems, working with Hilton, Google, JPL, and Caltech. PowerFlex was acquired in 2019 by EDF Renewables North America. Low is Caltech's Frank J. Gilloon Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences and Electrical Engineering.