Iowa State University wants to spend $12 million to $14 million to replace its two remaining coal-fired boilers with natural gas-fired boilers — effectively ending the campus’ use of coal.
Although Iowa State plans to pay for the project — scheduled for Board of Regents consideration Thursday — using utility funds, administrators expect to make that money back in fewer than four years “through annual utility savings of $3.7 million derived from this project.”
“In addition to the $3.7 million annual utility savings, the use of natural gas instead of coal would reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent and significantly reduce other air emissions, greatly increasing ISU’s overall sustainability for generations to come,” according to the ISU request to proceed in planning its “coal boiler’s natural gas conversion project.”
Issues related to utilities and energy use have been hotly debated and widely discussed across Iowa’s public universities in recent months — with the University of Iowa in December entering into a $1.165 billion deal with a private French company to operate its utility system for the next 50 years.
The arrangement lands UI a massive upfront lump sum it can invest and pull from annually to fund its mission and strategic plan. The deal benefits the private firm by affording it decades of reliable income.
As part of the agreement, the new operator vowed to pursue ambitious sustainability initiatives in collaboration with the campus — and the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment in May unveiled new sustainability goals for the next decade.
If accomplished, the goals would — among other things — cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, compared with a 2010 baseline, and ramp up renewable-energy supplies. The university’s former sustainability plan aimed to reach 40-precent renewable energy consumption by 2020, a goal it achieved — also cutting annual coal consumption by 75 percent, according to a recent UI report on its 2020 goals.
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Additionally, UI President Bruce Harreld several years ago announced the campus would be coal-free by 2025.
But the UI goals and past achievements haven’t satisfied an Iowa City group of climate protesters that has for more than a year publicized and notified the campus of a long list of demands — including that it immediately stop burning coal at its power plant.
The Iowa State proposal to nix coal at its 114-year-old power plant doesn’t include a timeline for when construction would begin. ISU right now is seeking only regent approval to proceed with project planning.
If approved, ISU officials project eventually saving $3.7 million a year via lower-cost natural gas options, along with reduced operating, maintenance and repair expenses associated with coal handling and ash disposal.
“This project also positions Iowa State University to pursue future sustainable, cost-effective fuel alternatives and technologies for large-scale utility production,” according to the project proposal.
Iowa State’s power plant — originally built in 1891 before a new plant came online in 1906 — has two 32-year-old coal-fired boilers and three 4-year-old natural gas-fired boilers. The newer boilers were added in 2016 as part of a $42 million conversion project allowing ISU to expand its fuel portfolio — resulting in an 80 percent reduction of total emissions and 20 percent reduction of carbon dioxide.
Replacing the remaining pair of coal-fired boilers would involve removing coal-handling systems and both of Iowa State’s coal storage sites — one right next to the power plant, to the east, and the other northeast.
In addition to Iowa State’s efforts to diversify its energy portfolio — including partnering with the city of Ames for wind energy — the campus and its faculty members are entrenched in bioenergy research and crop production.
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The institution, for example, established a new bioenergy research farm southwest of Ames last summer. Researchers in recent years have done a lot of work on perennial grasses — which provide a rich source of biomass used in power plants — and they’ve collaborated with the UI on its use and local production.
“To complement the university’s efforts to diversify its energy portfolio, a number of energy efficiency initiatives have been put into action to reduce Iowa State’s collective energy demand,” according to its sustainability website. “These initiatives range from the installation of energy savings devices, such as occupancy sensors, timers and vending machine misers, to building competitions focused on behavioral change and winter break building shutdown.”
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