Planning board set to vote on Princeton University’s geothermal-exchange facility and tank project

A rendering of the grothermail-exchange tanks and building, as viewed from the University Now Nursery School.

The Princeton Planning Board is expected to make a decision as early as tonight on a controversial proposal to build a geothermal-exchange building called “Princeton TIGER” and two 45 to 38-foot-high, 2.25-million-gallon storage tanks, two electrical transformers, and a site generator. The tanks will store water that will be used to heat and cool a portion of the campus, providing the school with a more sustainable source of energy at the university works towards its goal of being carbon neutral by 2046.

Plans for the project are opposed by some of the school’s own faculty members, who are in favor of environmentally friendly energy sources and the project in general, but not the location of the project next to a nursery school and the residential neighborhood where many of them live. Their main concern about the project is noise.

The site is bound to the south by Faculty Road, to the west by FitzRandolph Road, to the north by the driveway for 185 Broadmead, and to the east by the East Regional Basin. The university will be drilling wells through October of 2021. The facility will be under construction until April of 2023. The planning board has spent more than 10 hours hearing about plans for the project and feedback from residents in the neighborhood, as well as university faculty members who send their children to the University Now Nursery School.

Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran has been hired by two residents in the neighborhood. At the planning board’s most recent meeting about the project in February, he questioned some experts and also called on Planning Board Chair Wanda Gunning to recuse herself from the hearing. Gunning is on the editorial board of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, a Princeton University scholarly publication, and her husband is a member of the emeritus faculty in the department of mathematics. The lawyer for the planning board, Gerald Muller, said he didn’t think there was a conflict of interest, but Gunning recused herself anyway “to avoid any perceived conflict, out of an abundance of caution.” The following planning board meeting during another hearing about a different university project, Gunning did not recuse herself and led the meeting.

At the February meeting on the TIGER project, Christopher DeGrezia, the lawyer for the university, said the school made modifications to the plans for the geothermal project after a meeting with neighbors. University Architect Ron McCoy said the university added an acoustic wall along the east facade to reduce noise from the facility. The wall will face the neighborhood, and capture any sound from the tanks’ louvers that would travel north toward the nursery school, he said. The new acoustic wall will either be a metal panel system or a concrete wall with an acoustic plaster on the inside that faces the louvers, McCoy said, adding that the noise would be below ambient levels in the neighborhood.

Planning board member and councilwoman Mia Sacks asked McCoy if the changes had allayed the neighbors’ fears. Afran objected to her question, saying McCoy shouldn’t be testifying about the state of mind of the neighbors.

Tenured university faculty members who oppose the project still had concerns about noise, which also has been a major problem in their neighborhood as part of university construction projects. A few faculty members also noted during the hearing in February that the school’s campus plan in 2017 showed the tanks being located next to the DeNunzio Pool in a non-residential area. They questioned why the project was being located near their neighborhood instead of next to the pool.

Some residents also expressed concerns about geothermal wells that would be dug near the nursery school. Geothermal wells for the project were already approved by town officials through an administrative waiver. The university is currently not drilling wells near the nursery school. McCoy would not say if wells will be dug there in the future.

Professor Gary Bass does not live in the neighborhood, but his daughter attends the nursery school and he said he was concerned about a massive geo-exchange plant being built right next to a daycare center and playground. He also noted that the nursery school is used as a big selling point for recruiting new faculty members. “I came into this with an open mind, but I’ve come away really troubled by the plan to build a massive facility right next door to my daughter’s daycare facility,” Bass said. “The university’s assumptions (about the facility’s sound levels) rely on a considerable degree of optimism about how well things will go…Things sometimes do not turn out according to plan. Bass noted that Stanford University’s geothermal plant is located much farther away from residential areas and that Princeton University’s campus plan had the plant located next to the pool and a parking lot. Bass said he was also concerned because the university’s noise estimates for the facility keep changing. “That building is a very, very large building and it won’t be able to be moved once it’s there,” Bass said.

DeGrezia said the university’s project will meet state standards for noise levels. An acoustic consultant for the university has said the noise from the project will be far below state-mandated levels. But at the February meeting, the university would not commit its lower projections for the noise levels as part of approvals.

“We just heard that the new plan will mitigate noise and will have a 10-decibel reduction in sound from before,” Professor Andrew Watsky said. “Will the university commit to making any adjustments necessary if projections prove wrong? The response we’ve gotten before was ‘well we will adhere to New Jersey state standards’, which is quite different from projections and promises we have heard. Will the university commit to new projections rather than falling back on state standards?”

DeGrezia said the university will commit to complying with state standards.

“So the answer is no,” Muller said, adding that the board could require a post-construction noise study when the facility is operational and require remediation if the projected noise levels are exceeded. The lawyer for the university balked at the suggestion. “If it is not a permitted use, you can adopt different standards than in the state code. You can’t apply it to permitted uses with no variances.” Muller disagreed. “The board has the power to impose conditions and doesn’t have to be because of a variance.” Afran weighed in, noting that he has argued that the facility is not a permitted use. He has said it is a power plant. The university has characterized it as a storage facility.

Professor Tarik Shahbender said one of biggest issues the neighborhood faces is noise pollution. “There have been a number of different sound projections. They’ve changed repeatedly. I’ve lost confidence in projections, as they seem to change based on (our) objections. The current projected levels seem reasonable…if they are wrong, we the local neighborhood and resident pay the price.”

Shabender and others wanted the university to put in writing that they will test the levels after the project is operational, and fix things if there is a problem.

Professor Olga Troyanskaya, a data scientist, said neighbors are being told to trust the university estimates, but that models are only as good as the data and parameters put in them. She said the sound level for current university construction projects often violates regulations, and that residents of the neighborhood have had to contact the police and health department and install sound meters.

Professor Manjul Bhargava said he was very concerned about having an industrial size facility on a residential block where neighborhood kids go to school, and about having no written guarantees about noise. He said neighbors were never given a good answer about why the facility could not be built next to the pool instead of the residential neighborhood, other than university priorities. “Are we low priority, the neighbors? We are the scholars of the university who need quiet to work…We contend that we are very high priority and there is a very good location next to the pool where you won’t have libraries, residents complaining, or children suffering.”

McCoy said the premise of Bhargava’s comment, that the project would have an adverse impact on the neighborhood, was wrong. “We have demonstrated it won’t have an adverse effect,” he said. He then asked the neighbors to trust the university.

Watsky said the university was causing a lot of people in the neighborhood to be upset.

“Trust lives at that disjuncture,” McCoy said.

Afran said the university was saying two things. “You’re saying trust us, but then you’re saying you won’t sign a legal agreement,” he said.