December 4, 2023 - From the December, 2023 issue

John Onderdonk on Decarbonizing Caltech’s Entire Campus

Caltech, which has long been at the forefront of science & innovation, has been investing for years in its campus’ sustainability. TPR spoke with John Onderdonk, working out of the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, on his role as Caltech’s Assistant Vice President of Facilities Operations and Services at the campus and the many efforts underway to modernize their grid and prepare for the future realities of climate change. In the interview, Onderdonk speaks of the challenges of meeting the demands of a “small city” (Caltech) and the challenge of, literally, building the airplane while you’re flying it.

John Onderdonk

“[What we’re doing is] building the airplane while you're flying it. It's changing the entire infrastructure of the campus from a utility standpoint while you're supporting world class research. That is a massive challenge. Certainly not straightforward, but very, very exciting.” - John Onderdonk

TPR: John, we’ve done a number of interviews and panels with you over the years regarding integrated planning, sustainable building, and grid modernization. You’re now the Assistant Vice President of Facilities Operations and Services at Caltech, and the Chief Sustainability Officer, amidst many Caltech efforts to decarbonize and modernize campus utilities and infrastructure for resiliency. Give us an overview of the work you’re doing now. 

John Onderdonk: The work has been going on for a long time, close to 10 years. I've been at Caltech for 15 and you really could trace it back all the way to the beginning. Lately, we've been focusing in earnest on what decarbonization means for Caltech and there are two main components to that; the supply side and the demand side. The supply side is where a lot of people are focusing, for example, do we want to get solar, wind, geothermal, power purchase agreement arrangements, etc. That gets a lot of attention, and I think it's all worthwhile and attention should be put there. But, to me, that's the much more straightforward component of decarbonization. The more complex, interesting and potentially challenging part of decarbonization, particularly for a campus like ourselves, is on the distribution and demand side of the equation.  

If we are going to switch to renewable electricity, we need to switch to electric sources for the heating and cooling of the campus. We already have electric chillers currently on campus, so that part we’re accomplishing, but electric heating is a very different equation. Right now we have a cogeneration plant that is a natural gas turbine, with a steam turbine associated with it, that produces all of our steam that heats the campus. If we went to an electric source, that would go away. We would have to find a different application to provide us with that heating. So, we're looking at heat recovery chillers as the best option there but then the cascade effect there is that you're impacting and touching every single building on campus. You're repiping the campus, replumbing it and you're incorporating thermal energy storage to improve the efficiency and the economics of that system. All of this is essentially the proverbial building the airplane while you're flying it. It's changing the entire infrastructure of the campus from a utility standpoint while you're supporting world class research. That is a massive challenge. Certainly not straightforward, but very, very exciting. 

John, give us an insight into how you're building the plane as you're flying it. What is state of the art and what is practical for a campus?  

First, we want to start with the obvious: technical specifics. I mean, we are Caltech. We have to have data to back us up and we have to sell things through data and rigorous processes. The good news is there are many technical applications out there that are already proving that you can electrify the heating side of the equation. What we've been doing now is really socializing it through the administration and through the senior leadership and our Sustainability Council, which reports directly to the president. We are reporting to them about the methods that we want to pursue, the technology we want to pursue, how we want to face this and demonstrating the benefits that could come from this transition. They're the ones who are buying into it and need to say, “Yes, this is the path forward.”  

While engineering is incredibly important, and you have to have that data and the nuts and bolts, I still spend most of my time working with people and talking people through this. The initial reaction is, “Oh my gosh, we're going to change the whole campus utility infrastructure? This is one that's going to cost a ton of money.” And the second is, this is going to be disruptive to our research. All of those things just boil down to, essentially, perceptions of change. Working with people on that change process is the most critical piece of this, as long as you have to have the data to back you up. There will be some growing pains, it’s never straightforward. But in the end, we could have a system that could support research for the next 100 years without producing GHG emissions. That's an exciting prospect. 

You're the lead sustainability adviser for more than a dozen capital projects and you're leading on the coordination of deployment of all this distributed energy. Give us some examples of success as to what's been working over these last 10 years. 

Fortunately, we have really strong partners, architects, engineers and electrical mechanical folks that we rely on to help us with a lot of number crunching and really understanding the playing field and best practices in the industry. The cooling towers are a perfect example. We had outdated cooling tower technology that needed to be upgraded, not only for efficiency, but for cooling capacity to meet the hotter hots and the heat waves that have come and will be coming, as well as seismic issues and so forth. We eventually went to packaged modular cooling towers. That was brought to us by one of our engineering partners who said, this is the state of the art and here's how you do it. The cool thing about those is they are modular, so if one fails, we can take it offline and the other five continue running. It’s resilient and we can maintain them while they're operating. Their speed is variable, so you can dial them up and down, depending on the cooling requirements that you need to meet, which, obviously, saves electricity and water. That's one key example.  

It's important for us to be cutting edge but we also have to keep the lights on, so we don't need to be bleeding edge. That's where the best practices and the tried and true methodologies from elsewhere in the industry are really important to us. 

Tell us about the Linde Center at Caltech and how it plays into all of this. 

The Linde Center was formerly an astrophysics building but we needed it to be the home for our new Global Environmental Science Group. That was a unique project in that it was a historic building, not from a historic register planning standpoint, but historic to Caltech and a significant resource that we wanted to maintain. But, older buildings have tighter floor to ceiling spaces and you're having to cram modern research into these tight spaces. That presents a lot of challenges. We wanted to make it a cutting edge sustainable building.  

The project certainly had its hiccups, but it is the building that has probably taught us the most about building, operating and maintaining high performance sustainable buildings. One example is that we initially over metered the building because we wanted to know about every little electron in the building and where that was going. What we found out was that we quickly got overwhelmed with the data, as well as having data reliability issues. We realized that even though we know where the electron is going, we may not be able to control that and manage it in an appropriate way.  

Taking a step back and knowing when and where to measure and what was appropriate from a management and operational standpoint was critical.  

The Resnick Sustainability Center building is also a great story, from my perspective. It's a beautiful building, it will be LEED Platinum like the Linde Center and designed to be state of the art from a building standpoint. It has a mass timber system, which is the first mass timber system we've deployed on campus and a very sustainable approach to building. It doesn't carry the full structural load in the building, but it does carry the facade and perimeter of the building. It's also a very tangible signal of the sustainability of the building.  

More important is the research that's being done in the building. This is a hub now for all of the sustainable science that's happening at Caltech. Every freshman who comes to Caltech will come through this building to take a sustainability focused chemistry class. Essentially, every graduate from Caltech will have a concept of sustainability integrated into their education from day one. That is going to be the most transformational aspect of this building long term. It also is just a wonderful place that I think people will gravitate to once it's open. 

Let’s pivot to your mission goals. A couple of years ago at VerdeXchange, you noted that Caltech had missed some of those goals. Give us an update on the progress you've made on trying to move away from gas and hitting your emission goals. 

This is the heart of our decarbonization strategy. We had initially set a goal to return to 1990 levels by the year 2020. We did not achieve that. But, we did achieve roughly a quarter reduction in our emissions. That was a big stride. A theme that you're going to hear every time you talk to Caltech is that we're learning as we go. What we learned is that our cogeneration power plant sets the baseline carbon emissions and so we have to move away from that as our baseload power. If we're going to continue to decarbonize then we need to procure green electrons, renewable electricity, from off site and transition away from fossil fuel as our primary source of combustion. If we do all those things, that will get us roughly 90% decarbonization. It hinges on us making the transition to electric heating. We want to make sure we understand this very well and make sure we map out this transition. We think, right now, it's about a 10 year transition and it’s a very significant transition. It touches every single building. Making sure we've got that gameplan right is where we're at right now, but I'm completely confident that we can get it done. The administration is supportive of the concept and they understand the need for this.  

Talk about the collaborations you've entered into on the campus, like the city of Pasadena, architects, engineers, and talk about how you are managing those collaborations and what you've learned over your 15 years. 

The key to success is collaboration. To try and solve these complex challenges like sustainability or decarbonization in isolation is just a recipe for banging your head against the wall. Pasadena Water and Power (PWP) is by far our strongest and most important partner when it comes to our utility systems and electricity, not only because they're the utility that we buy electricity from, but because the grid in the city of Pasadena and the Caltech campus grew up together. One of the first East-West connections electrically in the city of Pasadena runs through our substation number one. We have very practical real world reasons to work together, not to mention that we share goals and priorities of decarbonization and looking toward the future to modernize the grid. So, we're talking regularly with their senior leadership and their engineers.  

One of the things I'm most proud of is that the conversation is not just happening with me and the general manager of PWP. The engineers who are out in the field are talking with our electricians and engineers, standing shoulder to shoulder in a substation, planning things out and making things work in real time. That's the depth of this partnership that is super important. Obviously, there are other partnerships with other higher education institutions, and organizations. VerdeXchange is a good one. All of these things are important because, even though higher education is the core focus, I have to be learning from both the private and the public sector. I can't just be solely focused on what works in higher education because that's not necessarily where the best solutions are. 

Caltech has been a center of innovation engineering for a century now. How do you manage the expertise and egos on that campus as you build a platform to demonstrate cutting edge technology? How do you manage all that? 

It is a balance, and that is one of the most important parts of being successful professionally at Caltech; understanding and navigating that culture. We're very fortunate in the sense that sustainability is a driving focus of a lot of the research on campus, it is an “in thing,” if you will. Our utility system not only provides our students and faculty a learning environment– we annually tour our thermodynamics class through our power plant and speak to the class on the realities of running a power plant– but we're also benefiting from the research.  

Two quick examples. We have the EV chargers that we have deployed across campus, 150 or so, which all came from a startup that was spun out of Caltech. It's all based on algorithmic charging, rather than building additional electrical capacity to support these chargers. The other one that I'm very excited about, still in the early stages of building, is a digital twin of our utility system. That will help us essentially be able to model future changes before we actually implement them and then to be able to better control and understand the metabolism of the campus. We had two power outages a week apart, unrelated to each other; one resulted from an equipment failure, the other resulted from a grid failure. The data that the research group, using this digital twin, provided us was very accurate and they were able to drill down into the root cause within a matter of minutes, even before we heard from PWP on what the root cause was. The ability to potentially have that data on hand in real time and understand what's happening on the grid at scale would be game changing, right? It would allow us to better manage the grid, reduce interruptions, etc. As this matures, it could be a phenomenal addition to campus, not to mention that it's giving this research group opportunities to experiment and play in our sandbox and develop this technology which could then be broadly applied across the country. 

You're contained within a robust and century old city. Talk about your impact on sustainability, the landscaping of your campus.  

It's a super important one because not only is it visible to everybody, but it directly impacts people on a daily basis. We have a tradition of collaborative open spaces that engage people. If you boil it down, that's the secret sauce of Caltech. We want a biologist and engineer and a chemist and a theoretical physicist, all to be collaborating in a relaxed environment where they can do their best science. The landscape areas, our outdoor classrooms, are absolutely critical to that. They have to be shaded in green and they have to provide that calming, peaceful environment. We have 3000 or so trees on campus, so we're essentially a little arboretum. That tree canopy is the most important part of our landscape environment not only now, but will become increasingly important in the future as we get into hotter summers and higher heat days. That canopy is going to be vital to create a comfortable outdoor space. We need to maintain that tree canopy and we need to enhance it. Also, we need to water it. What we don't need to water is superfluous turf and other things that aren't contributing to that outdoor space as a utility. So, we're cutting back where we can and changing our landscape, certainly going towards drought tolerant, native, and climate adapted species, because that makes the most sense. Those are also species that reduce our maintenance and operational costs, which are all good things. 

We don't want to go and swing the pendulum to a xeriscape or to a landscape that would dissuade that comfortable outdoor gathering. That is a critical piece for us. I think we can strike that balance and I think we're doing a really good job of it. We've just gone through a landscape update of our guidelines, and the primary focus is on tree canopy, and then stormwater management. We're not necessarily going to get more rain in the future, but we're going to get lots more rain and punctuated events, and we're going to have to deal with those large rainfall events over short periods of time. That becomes a stormwater management issue as we don't want to flood our labs and campus. Handling water within the campus landscape, making sure that landscape is cool and protective for hotter summers, is a key piece of the puzzle. 

At VerdeXchange, our mantra is: what's in-market, about to be in-market, and what’s needed in-market. I couldn't think of a better person to ask than you, what's needed in-market that's not there yet that you're looking at? 

I think it'd be around this concept of building automation, or building management systems. When I look at our campus of 4 million square feet, I see an artificial organism that has a metabolism, and the more I understand about that metabolism, and the more I can monitor it and influence it in a positive way, the better off we're going to be to produce the science that we need to produce. All of this comes down to the nuts and bolts of metering/submetering, building management systems, building automation, data collection, data integrity, and data analytics. We have the backbone structure for that within our current building management system. But, the analytics certainly could improve. If you talk about a future where there's potentially artificial intelligence helping us manage and digest these giant datasets, that is potentially game changing.  

There's also missing right now, from my perspective, the third party management, if you will, of the data collection and curation aspect of this. I have a limited number of technical folks in our building instrumentation and controls unit. They're running day and night, trying to keep the system up and running and the data polished. If there are third party options out there, or if there are ways to do metering as a service, for the collection, processing and maintenance of the data, that would be helpful for us because then we can have our technical experts focusing on the analytics and the action, not keeping meters calibrated and making sure the backbone nuts and bolts are operating properly. 

With respect to mobility and your campus needs and planning, what are your priorities, what have you incorporated and what are you thinking about in that space? 

The biggest issue here is figuring out what hybrid means for a university, right? We did a very thorough and very good mobility study which dropped in late 2020. And then, the pandemic threw everything upside down. We need to understand what hybrid modalities of teaching, learning, staffing and working mean at our campus. We're still working on that. We need to adapt to that world and figure out how we can still do science. How do we collaborate without necessarily having people driving cars? We were fortunate to start out with a residential campus and a high population of people that lived within biking distance and walking distance of the campus, so you're starting in a really good spot. But, the biggest challenge here are the people who are generally the lowest paid individuals on campus who also all live the furthest away from campus. Those people also happen to be critically important to making sure the campus runs, just as important as the researcher who lives down the street and can walk or ride a bike to campus. I'm working on finding ways that those critical staff members, the custodians, the ground crews, the electricians, the plumbers, can get to work in a good way, a safe way, a fast way, that doesn't contribute to all the challenges of mobility and do that in an equitable way. That's where I spend a lot of my time because that's an area that I can actually control and hopefully influence, but it is not easy. It certainly gets at the larger challenges of commuting in LA County and the region. 

In terms of the applicability of your work on a 4 million square foot campus– if you were to be appointed, over your own objections, as city manager of a city like Pasadena, what's the applicability of your experience on your campus to a city wide responsibility? 

It's ideally suited because I already essentially run a small city, though, as you know, the city of Pasadena is slightly larger. Every single challenge that we confront at Caltech is a challenge that we confront in the city of Pasadena or, if you scale it, in larger city regions, state and at national levels to some degree. It's all very real world experience. I've just been doing it at a smaller scale.


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