Part five of a five part series
With swimming pools soon to begin filling up, unwanted algae will inevitably follow. But while city pools will scrape it away, IU’s Central Heating Plant is harvesting the organism on purpose to remove carbon dioxide from the plant’s coal emissions.
At the same time, administrators are also considering using some biomass as fuel at the plant. But neither of these projects can do more than inch IU forward in its long path toward eliminating its carbon emissions.
At IU’s Central Heating Plant, some carbon dioxide shoots out of a smokestack and some gets caught by a filter called a baghouse. But a little bit gets diverted to a special room. To be eaten by algae.
“It’s an interesting contraption, almost like something out a sci-fi movie,” said Devin Hartman, a former Office of Sustainability intern.
He’s talking about a project in the basement of IU’s Central Heating Plant that holds vats of bubbling Granny Smith apple colored liquid. Flue gases, the byproducts of combusted coal, are fed through tubes to hungry algae, which absorb it.
It’s not mad science.
“There’s just no doubt about the fact it works,” Mark Menefee, IU Assistant Director of Utilities.
Menefee has allowed this experiment because of its potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – the number one contributor to climate change – spewing from coal plants. It’s the baby of Biology Professor Richard Wagner. He says the concept holds promise, but scaling this up from a basement experiment to a viable – and practical – large scale operation creates many issues.
“I think a lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon and thinking this an easy thing. And a no brainer. Because they sit back and think about all the algae that grows in their swimming pool and say it’s simple to grow. It’s not. It’s quite complicated,” Wagner said.
Cultivating enough algae to fully combat the sheer amount of carbon dioxide bellowing out of the Central Heating Plant could require dozens, if not hundreds, of acres of onsite ponds, for which IU doesn’t have room.
And pumping flue gases through hundreds of thousands of gallons of water is energy intensive – and expensive — to say the least. But Wagner also envisions recycling the algae as fuel, meaning the net result of the process would effectively be the same amount of C02 emissions into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, upstairs from the algae, heating plant managers are considering the possibility of burning biomass – plant-based energy sources. In February, they met with private company MacCreek Energy, which proposed converting IU’s boilers so they’d turn biomass into methane gas and then burn it.
This method is more environmentally friendly if the fuel source is local, Menefee says, adding carbon emissions would be comparable to natural gas, which produces half as much CO2 as coal.
“Any energy that we use has emissions issues,” he said.
Menefee says the cost of burning biomass could be prohibitive, though he couldn’t provide specific numbers. And he says there’s no timetable for making a decision on the change.
“It’s difficult to say right now what form this heating plant will take in the future. Or what fuels will be burned in the future,” Menefee said.
Menefee says providing heat and electricity at IU or around the world in the future boils down to two choices: People could change their behaviors and consume use less energy or humankind can try to find a way to keep using more energy by fixing the problems it creates.
“I think it will take a considerable crisis to change our behavior. Everyone has gotten to this point where they really have some really strict expectations for their comfort level. You know, on campus we try and conserve energy and one of the things we do in the winter time is set the thermostat down to 60 degrees. And you immediately hear from people, ‘I’m cold. I’m plugging my electric heater into the wall.’”
The Meetings Go On
As scheduled, Coal Free IU President Lauren Kastner says she met with Vice President Tom Morrison this week to push him to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, which would pledge IU to finding a way to carbon neutrality. But that signature still seems elusive.
“The prediction [Morrison] gave us for President McRobbie’s signature on that document was that the university would rather speak louder with its actions than by signing something,” Kastner said.
IU’s Integrated Energy Master Plan, which will ostensibly provide a path for campus to dial down its emissions one notch at a time, could take up to two years to finish. Then administrators will face a choice: translate the report into action, or don’t. But for the time being, how IU will someday find a way to walk without leaving a footprint is still matter of imagination.