By Caroline Hemphill

I would like to introduce you to Drew Andersen, Logan Babcock, Daija Odom, Marco Palombo, and Emily Pelstring, Bren Master of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) students working with Housing, Dining & Auxiliary Enterprises (HDAE), and UCSB Sustainability. The Master’s students are working together to come up with a plan to electrify major HDAE campus buildings through retrofits and replacements. The students are looking at three classic UCSB buildings: De la Guerra Dining Hall, the San Miguel residence hall, and West Campus apartments.

The electrification project is a part of their MESM Master’s Group Project. As part of the Master of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) program, Bren students collaborate on a group project from the spring of their first year through the spring of their second and final year. For these Master’s Group Projects, students work to solve environmental problems for real clients. 

The UC System, as well as the state of California at large, is pushing for decarbonization. This often manifests as efforts to build new structures that are all electric, energy efficient, and run on clean electricity.. New sustainable buildings are, of course, important, and ensure that emissions aren’t increased. However, this approach does nothing to chip away at baseline carbon emissions from existing buildings. This is where electrification through retrofit and replacements come in.

“Our project is a little bit of a guinea pig,” Babcock said. The emphasis placed on new builds means that there aren’t many large scale case studies that the group project can use as a model or inspiration. While there are many gas appliances with suitable electric replacements, like stoves and furnaces, the technology isn’t quite up to speed yet for others. In many ways, the group project members are starting from the ground up. 

The project to put together decarbonization recommendations  began in spring of 2022. In the summer of 2022, one of the group members, Emily Pelstring, worked as an intern with Katie Maynard, Director of UCSB Sustainability. She talked with other universities and UC schools about their electrification work. She also took inventory of every appliance in the De la Guerra dining hall and found electric replacements. 

So far, the project has found that hot water boilers are the main source of emissions at UCSB buildings. Another part of Pelstring’s summer internship was taking boiler readings at De la Guerra dining hall to assess when peak demand was. The boilers at UCSB don’t have meters, so the group members had to get creative. They came up with the solution to have a time lapse camera pointed at the boiler so they could track readings over time. They found that meal times, when students were inside of the dining hall, the demand for hot water spiked.

Though the Bren students have undoubtedly had to flex their creative muscles, some solutions have been surprisingly simple. Electric appliances and heat pumps are common and in many cases, widely available. UCSB is also in the fortunate position of having lower building heating and cooling needs due to our temperate climate. Because of our location, heat pump systems for heating and cooling are sufficient electric and energy efficient replacements for gas systems. 

It is important to note that, generally, it is not a given that making things electric means they are coming from clean energy sources. Luckily, at UCSB, this is true. Because of the UC Clean Power Program, all of UCSB’s electricity comes from clean energy sources. This means that electrification will, in fact, decrease fossil fuel usage and net carbon emissions.

The next steps for the group project are writing the final report, which is already underway, and a series of presentations to conclude the group members’ MESM degrees. The students have had valuable experience with this project that they hope to bring into their careers beyond UCSB. “This project has given us literal, boots-on-the-ground decarbonization experience,” Babcock explained. 

This project is what most decarbonization work will look like, rather than in breakthrough technology. Commercial space electrification is a new and exciting field that has a lot of buzz. “We’re more literate in that kind of conversation, where we weren’t before,” Pelstring said. 

While there aren’t yet plans for implementing the retrofits and replacements the Bren students plan to suggest, their analysis and creation of the plan is an instrumental first step. Knowledge is power, and the more we know about what electrification will look like, the closer we come to achieving that goal.