IOWA CITY — With the University of Iowa’s goal of 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020 well in sight, UI President Bruce Harreld this week announced a new aim: to remove all coal from its fuel portfolio by 2025.
“The university will continue to pursue and develop its innovative renewable energy program to ensure an abundant supply for alternative sources of energy,” Harreld said in a statement. “It’s the right choice for our students and our campus, and it’s the surest path to an energy-secure future.”
Former UI President Sally Mason in 2008 set the campus 2020 sustainability goals, including shifting its dependency away from fossil fuels to at least 40 percent renewable energy. The university since has taken strides toward achieving that by, among other things, increasing its use of biomass and other renewable energy sources.
In fact, since debuting the goals in 2008, the university has slashed its use of coal by 60 percent. And — in late 2016 — it reported a single-day use high of 52 percent renewable energy, with a weekly average of 50 percent.
Erin Hazen, UI renewable energy business development manager, told The Gazette those numbers were just peak performances, and the fuel mix changes daily — depending on the market, weather and demand. The university has not yet achieved its 40 percent goal, according to Hazen.
“But we are well on track to,” she said.
The university in 2013 partnered with Iowa State University to establish an energy crop of Miscanthus grass dedicated for UI fuel. The university to date has planted 550 acres of that grass in Iowa City, Muscatine and Cedar Rapids, and it plans to add another 250 to 350 acres this spring, according to UI officials.
Additionally, the university uses wood chips, green energy pellets, and oat hulls in its biomass portfolio, which UI Utilities and Energy Management Director Glen Mowery says makes the UI biomass program “one of the most advanced of any school in the U.S.”
Hazen added, “We are getting it done.”
“We know how to do it, and we are starting to hit these big milestones,” she said.
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Looking three years out, Hazen said, the university aims to establish up to 2,500 acres of Miscanthus grass locally, producing 22,500 tons of the bio-power feedstock. Its use of “green energy pellets” just passed operational testing.
“We expect this fuel will be an important contributor to the renewable energy program,” she said.
Despite the move away from coal, the university will continue using natural gas, according to Hazen. And, she said, the university buys electricity from the market, “and that is not entirely renewable.”
“But coal is the dirtiest fuel,” she said. “We wanted to target that on top of pushing toward more and more renewable energy. We want to make sure we shed the worst actor, and that is coal.”
Hazen called the university’s sustainable fuel initiative cost neutral. But, officials said, it focuses more spending on Iowa-based energy sources.
“Transitioning off coal to locally sourced biomass is cost-competitive and provides maximum economic value to the state by providing jobs to the local economy and taking advantage of Iowa’s outstanding agricultural producers,” Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz said in a statement. “In addition, the UI’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship are important factors when recruiting and inspiring students, faculty and those who support the University of Iowa.”
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