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Virginia Tech plans greater use of natural gas

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech will stop most of the burning of coal in its steam plant by 2020, a university spokeswoman said last week.
The statement is an about-face for the university, where officials said for years that coal was the only reliable, efficient fuel for producing heat, hot water and electricity used by buildings across campus — regardless of protests by student and community environmentalists, and tussles with state regulators over air pollution from the plant’s coal-fired boilers.
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The change is due to drops in recent years in the price of natural gas, said Laura Neff-Henderson, communications director of Tech’s University Relations Division of Administrative Services.
“The price has been low enough for long enough that our leadership decided it would be a good idea,” Neff-Henderson said earlier this month.
Tech recently announced that this fall it expects to finish upgrading and improving the natural gas supply to the third of three steam plant boilers that have long had the capability to heat with either coal or natural gas. Still to come are the conversion to natural gas —or the replacement — of the two larger, coal-fired boilers that are the core of the steam plant’s production.
The details of that shift have yet to be worked out, but a 2020 deadline was set as part of Tech’s contract with Atmos Energy for a non-interruptible supply of natural gas, Neff-Henderson said last week.
“April 2020 is a firm deadline as our agreement with ATMOS gives us four years,” Neff-Henderson wrote in an email.
Tech’s student Environmental Coalition, Students for Clean Energy, and the New River Valley chapter of the Sierra Club, which have been among the groups that urged the university to move away from coal, could not be immediately contacted.
University officials said that the work at the steam plant will help Tech meet goals laid out in its 7-year-old climate action plan.
“The conversion from coal to natural gas is yet one more way Virginia Tech is committed to the sustainability efforts outlined in our 2009 climate action plan,” President Tim Sands said in a news release about the natural gas conversion. “We are committed to finding solutions to many of the challenges the world faces, and sustainability is among them. As we work to solve these challenges through our teaching and research, we have the opportunity to use our own campus as a learning environment and to not only test, but to live out future solutions.”
As part of the plan, Tech has a goal of reducing its carbon emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, a target shared by many organizations and governments in hopes of warding off global climate change. Emily Schosid, an environmental planner at the university, said last month that even with three decades to go, Tech was not on track to achieve the goal, largely because so much of its energy is not generated on-campus at the steam plant but comes from outside power companies whose generation practices are not controlled by the university.
But the steam plant’s switch to natural gas will reduce its carbon emissions by an estimated 50 percent, a university news release said.
In a statement relayed by Neff-Henderson, Byron Nichols, the senior associate director of utilities who has managed the steam plant for decades, said that most of the reductions will come in the form of producing less particulates, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide.
Neff-Henderson said that increasing use of natural gas at the steam plant “will be a gradual ramp-up over four years.” When fully implemented, the changeover is expected to cut about $1 million per year from the university’s fuel budget. That budget is now $6 million to $7 million annually, she said.
Two years ago, university officials calculated that for its two big coal-fired boilers to produce about 250 million British thermal units of heat per hour — a regular figure for their operations — it would cost $1,250 per hour to burn coal, $1,875 per hour to burn natural gas, or $5,750 per hour to burn fuel oil.
Now, the cost for coal is about the same, Neff-Henderson said, and fuel oil would still cost about $4,000 to $6,000 per hour. But the cost of producing 250 million Btu per hour with natural gas has dropped to about $1,000 per hour, she said.
The upgrades to the three smaller boilers at the steam plant have cost about $500,000 per boiler, Neff-Henderson said. An 8-inch diameter, 3.8-mile long natural gas pipeline that Atmos completed in April from the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center to the steam plant cost Tech $1.3 million, she said.
Years ago, Tech ran its coal-fired boilers in the winter when demand for heat increased. The boilers sent steam out to more than 100 buildings, and also created enough to drive electrical generation turbines. In the summer, the three smaller, natural gas-fueled boilers took over producing the smaller amount of steam needed during warm months.
That changed as campus and its energy needs grew. “During the last several years the campus steam load increased and coal boilers were used in the summer to support cogeneration” of steam and electricity, Neff-Henderson wrote in an email.
The coal-fired boilers have prompted intermittent protests on campus and in Blacksburg for more than 20 years, with residents, students and faculty members demanding that the university clean up its energy production. Students and staff in Tech’s Upper Quad, near the steam plant, complained about the gritty dust that blew from the large coal pile there.
Neff-Henderson wrote in an email that the years of protest did not really factor in Tech’s decision to move away from coal “but they did expose the issue.”
Fifteen years ago, the steam plant’s operations prompted a years-long stand-off between Tech and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality about the emissions limits for the newest of the large, coal-fired boilers. Tech let its new boiler sit idle and continued to use an older unit, which was grandfathered and did not have to meet newer regulations, rather than accept the permit requirements that DEQ proposed.
Jeff Hurst, deputy regional director of DEQ’s Blue Ridge Regional Office, said last week that Tech has not sought any changes to its air permits as the natural gas conversions have gone ahead. Permit modifications will only be needed if capacity increases, he said. While he had no direct knowledge of what Tech was doing with its boilers, he said that his agency has seen numerous shifts toward more natural gas use as that fuel’s price fell.
But it’s usual for coal to remain as a backup, Hurst said. Neff-Henderson confirmed that this would be true at Tech as well.
“Coal will continue to be our backup fuel for the foreseeable future,” she wrote in an email, attributing the information to Nichols. Tech will continue to store its largest supply of coal at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, about 8 miles from campus, Neff-Henderson wrote.
As for the next step, switching the steam plant’s two largest boilers to natural gas, Neff-Henderson said there are still many unknowns.
“We are currently in the planning stages regarding the next step(s) to fully utilize the new gas supply line,” she wrote in an email. “This may include retrofitting one or both of the existing coal units and/or adding a new gas boiler(s).