Campus News

Update on the use of coal at the University of Georgia

I appreciate the opportunity to update the campus community on the progress UGA is making in investigating options to replace the University’s single coal-fired boiler. This boiler, which is used sparingly to provide supplemental steam and heat during the coldest months of the year, is 48 years old and is nearing the end of its useful life. Because it most likely will need to be replaced within the next decade, the university has been proactively exploring possible replacement steam generation technologies utilizing a variety of fuel sources, including biomass and natural gas.

In March 2013, UGA’s Facilities Management Division (FMD) initiated a comprehensive and detailed study by soliciting a “Request for Qualifications” from private firms. These firms were invited to submit proposals to study various technology options, project costs, environmental impact, energy savings and much more. Because the study is also examining steam generation capacity to address future steam needs and the potential for electrical co-generation, the firms were required to have “Combined Heat and Power” (CHP) expertise. Twenty-two firms responded and four were interviewed by a team which included staff from FMD, the Office of University Architects, the College of Engineering (Engineering Outreach) and an SGA student representative who has been working with the Office of Sustainability. Jacobs Engineering was selected, and the study is now underway, with an expected delivery date of summer 2014.

Once this study is received, the University can begin the process of fully evaluating appropriate options for replacement steam generation technology. Because of the aforementioned CHP considerations, conceptual replacement technologies are envisioned to produce approximately three times the current coal boiler output. Thus, the current engineering analysis includes natural gas as well as biomass technologies, but does not include coal as the primary fuel source.

While not the only factor to be considered in developing a plan to meet UGA’s steam needs, the cost of doing so cannot be ignored in an era of limited state resources, a backlog of significant deferred maintenance needs on our aging campus, and the desire to invest greater financial resources in initiatives that will continue to elevate the academic stature of the university as a leading research university. Because preliminary cost estimates for a CHP system range upward of $25 million, it is imperative that we remain committed to ensuring that the existing steam plant equipment works reliably and efficiently for as long as possible. This commitment will help to maximize the financial resources available for investment by the university in instruction, research, public service and other academic and student learning needs.

In addition to fiscal responsibility, the University also abides by a strong commitment to environmental stewardship. The coal-fired boiler continues to operate in compliance with all state and federal environmental regulations and through continuous monitoring, we assure ourselves that we remain well below the emission limits authorized in our Title V Air Quality Permit. We have gone to great lengths to mitigate the boiler’s environmental impact, while at the same time preserve its reliability. We have installed additional environmental control equipment to further reduce emissions and coal use since 2008 has declined by more than two-thirds, from 18,000 tons per year to just over 6,000 tons per year. Ten of the University’s peer and aspirational institutions, including the University of Missouri, the University of Virginia and the University of Iowa, currently use coal as a fuel source.

The University’s strategic plan calls for a reduction in energy consumption of 20 percent by 2020, using a 2007 baseline. At the end of FY 2013, UGA’s energy consumption per square foot had been reduced 13.6%. This reduction is partially the result of work on upgrading the steam distribution system by insulating valves and lines in steam vaults and replacing/repairing leaking steam and condensate lines.

Determining the optimal solution for replacement steam generation technology is a complex and significant challenge with long-term implications for the effective and efficient management and operation of the University of Georgia. We appreciate the participation and counsel of the members of the study team and the staff in FMD and value their work in gathering and analyzing the information necessary to present various options for consideration.

(Ryan A. Nesbit is interim vice president for finance and administration at the University of Georgia.)