Part one of a five-part series
With winter nearing its end, Indiana University’s coal-powered heating plant will scale down its operations. But it will ramp up again next fall, and every year after that until the university decides otherwise.
That’s led student and environmental groups to call on IU to transition away from burning coal – the top source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – in the middle of campus.
An alarm sounds at the IU Central Heating plant. It’s just one of the dozen or so bells and buzzers that litter the white noise soundscape here. Assistant Director for Utilities Mark Menefee stands by a coal boiler with a two thousand degree inferno raging inside. He says the plant has tried to reduce pollution in recent years.
“We’ve changed the control systems, we’ve changed the emissions systems. But the boilers, they’re 1940s technology. It’s old stuff,” he said.
The university heats and cools 12 million square feet of buildings just on its Bloomington campus alone – that’s just less than double the size of the Pentagon.
Menefee says many buildings are inefficient and therefore lose energy. He says ailing half-century-old pipes carry steam to man buildings where the temperature is all but impossible to regulate. But he says this laundry list of inefficiencies, which leads to burning more coal than necessary, could be fixed.
“That takes capital investment. And that is hard to find. Especially in the last twenty years or so,” he said.
To Spend or Not to Spend
In recent years, the university has spent about $34-million to renovate the plant, including replacing two of the original boilers, which remained from the plant’s construction in 1955. Baghouses – fabric filters designed to catch coal ash – now trap nearly 70 percent of the plant’s particulate matter. And by injecting lime and carbon into the filtering process, some of the mercury that would otherwise pour out of the smokestacks is held back.
“It would be easy for us to turn off the switch tomorrow. But then we’d all look at each other and say, ‘Now what do we do?’” said Tom Morrison, IU Vice President for Capital Projects and Facilities.
He says the most logical alternative to burning coal is switch to natural gas. But even before IU saw a recent $60 million cut from the state, he says the university didn’t have the cash necessary to make the switch to burning more natural gas, which emits roughly half as much carbon.
Menefee says he could do it if the money was there.
“I could make that happen in four hours,” Menefee said.
The problem with natural gas is that its price is more volatile than coal. Morrison says with dwindling state support, increasing student fees would be one of the only ways to accomplish the switch.
“Then the question is, ‘Would you pay that? And we also have to reduce the offerings in your [academic] major,’” Morrison said.
Menefee agrees, noting the subject is tough to broach.
“There’s nobody in the administration that wants to stand up in front of anybody and say, ‘I’m for coal and forget everything else. We want to burn some coal,’” Menefee said, laughing. “We burn coal because of the money.”
It’s cheap because much of what IU burns is mined in-state, and Indiana has an estimated 500-year supply of the resource. Menefee says last year, IU’s plant burned about 60,000 tons (120,000,000 pounds) of Indiana coal.
“So we’re underneath the coal silo right now. There’s capacity for a thousand tons of coal in this silo. In the winter time we can burn 400 tons of coal a day. So there’s two and half days worth of coal here,”
Menefee and Morrison agree IU is stuck with coal as its heat source for the time being. But that answer hasn’t been good enough for student and environmental groups.
“The financial argument is the strongest they have,” said Lauren Kastner, president of Coal Free IU.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at efforts on and off campus to push IU and its coal plant towards transition.