Presentation: Steps to Decarbonization at the UW

This online presentation with Dave Woodson, the UW's Executive Director of Campus Energy, Utilities and Operations, looked at the University of Washington's Energy Transformation strategy and the steps to take for decarbonization.

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The UW is working to fully decarbonize the energy system of the Seattle campus. This monumental undertaking will modernize the UW's energy infrastructure and better align the University's sustainability values with daily campus operations.

The main driver of this project is the UW Power Plant. The plant, across Montlake Boulevard from the IMA, provides most of the heating and cooling for buildings on the Seattle campus. Heating largely comes from steam, created by burning natural gas to heat water, which is then sent through miles of utility tunnels below campus to individual buildings. The plant also uses electrical chillers to cool water, which is pumped to buildings to provide cooling.

Why do we need to act?

older boiler in the UW Power Plant

Infographic showing that 93% of UW's direct greenhouse gas emissions come from the natural gas used in the Power Plant, which costs $9+ million each yearThe current energy system has served the Seattle campus well for more than 100 years, but its age and dependence on fossil fuels create risks and no longer align with the mission of the University. Maintaining the existing status quo would be costly and leave the UW as one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters among the state's public institutions. UW’s clean energy transformation strategy will meet the following objectives:

  • Maintain a level of service worthy of a world-class research institution
  • Model solutions to environmental and financial challenges
  • Remain flexible to future technologies
  • Serve as a living lab
  • Exceed city and state requirements
  • Minimize total cost of ownership

The challenges

view of pipes, steel walkways and stairs in Power PlantGreenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

About 93% of the greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions on the Seattle campus are generated by the Power Plant. Eliminating these emissions will help the UW meet city and state GHG reduction mandates. If the UW takes no action, the University will pay approximately $4 million in fines and carbon allowances starting in 2023 and increasing to $15 million in 2029.

Energy consumption

The mild climate and historically low energy costs of the Seattle area have limited the financial benefits of many efficiency upgrades. As a result, our energy consumption per square foot of building space is nearly twice as high as targets set in Washington state's Clean Buildings Performance Standard. Rising utility costs combined with mandates for lower energy consumption are tilting the balance, demonstrating a strong business case for many efficiency projects.

Aging infrastructure

Much of the UW’s existing heating and energy equipment is well past its useful life and in need of replacement. Continued reliance on this outdated equipment strains maintenance resources and puts the UW at risk of service disruptions and equipment failures that jeopardize our ability to provide the level of energy service needed by a major research powerhouse university.

Electrical capacity constraint

All of the electricity for the main Seattle campus comes through a single location. The maximum amount of electricity that can flow through that site at a given moment is constrained by the size of the cables and the need to maintain redundancy in case of a catastrophic failure. On hot summer afternoons when cooling demand is high, the Seattle campus approaches that maximum load and runs the risk of shutting off cooling. Additional electrical capacity is needed to add cooling to campus buildings, and meet new winter demand when the UW shifts from fossil fuels to electricity for heating.

students walking on sidewalk outside new Health Sciences Education building

The path forward

In order to transition the Seattle campus utility system to 100% clean energy and decarbonize the heating and cooling system, the UW is looking at a five-part strategy.

Five part strategy graphic

1. Energy efficiency

To accelerate the work to make the campus more efficient UW Facilities is installing additional meters, upgrading building control systems and expanding data analytics. This will provide the insights the UW needs to optimize energy use. It will also help comply with state and city building performance mandates.

2. Convert to hot water

A first step to shift off fossil fuels is to transition from a high temperature steam system to a lower temperature hot water system. This leads to part four of the strategy.

3. Central cooling

Cooling is energy intensive: a more efficient system will free up electrical capacity for decarbonizing. The UW will transform cooling by replacing inefficient, aging building chillers with cooling capacity from the central plant and add chilled water storage.

4. Electrify heating

Electrify the system by installing heat pumps to recover waste heat from multiple sources.

5. Final push (full decarbonization)

Fully reducing the UW's dependence on fossil fuels will require an alternate way to produce the steam needed to sterilize research and medical equipment. UW Facilities is monitoring developing technologies to be prepared to implement the best option to solve this challenge.

More information

Students light climate fire under UW | KUOW
May 2023

Emitting greenhouse gases in WA? Here’s who will need to pay up to pollute | The Seattle Times
February 2023

How the UW handles extreme heat | UW Facilities blog
October 2022

Facing our energy future | UW Facilities blog
April 2022

Printable information sheet (PDF)



Get connected

In order to make this project a success, the needs of all members of our campus community will need to be understood, with outreach to a wide variety of students, faculty and staff. Reaching these goals will require a transition period of renovation to many buildings and possible disruption to areas of campus as utility infrastructure is upgraded. UW Sustainability wants to make sure we hear and understand the concerns of campus to minimize negative effects while ensuring a more sustainable future. We also want to know about cutting-edge innovations faculty and researchers are working on that might inform this project.

Contact to learn more about opportunities for students and faculty to engage with this effort. Or contact David Woodson, the executive director of Campus Energy, Utilities and Operations who is leading much of the effort, at