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Steam Plant Transition Points To Greener Future For Penn State

Nestled between Burrowes and Atherton Street, the west campus steam/power plant (WCSP) has had a relatively quiet existence. That’s not to diminish the impact the plant has on the community – it provides Penn State with 5 percent of the campus’s total electricity (on average) and heats the dorms and buildings during the winter. The west campus plant produces on average 3 MW of power, while the east campus plant produces around 7 MW of power. While the electricity from the west campus plant alone is enough to meet PSU’s emergency power needs, Penn State needs to purchase power from outside sources in order to meet the electricity demands of the campus.

But for all its contributions to campus, the WCSP seems to be the forgotten story of Penn State. Students and faculty walk by the facility every day, but few know the inner workings of the plant that was constructed in 1929.

However, the EPA’s Clean Air Act is likely to change all that.

Thanks to the EPA, Penn State now has to comply with the Act’s new standards, which aim to reduce harmful emissions like mercury, cadmium, and other particle pollution from boilers. Considering that the steam and electricity from the WCSP is generated by burning coal — perhaps the dirtiest of the fossil fuels —  Penn State knew they’d have to make some changes.

“We knew that whatever standards [the EPA would] have, this plant would not comply with the standards they come up with,” commented Paul Moser, the Superintendent of Steam Services at Penn State.

With the new EPA standards in mind, Penn State developed a plan to convert the WCSP to natural gas. This included asking Columbia Gas for additional capacity to transport the gas, which was considered controversial by many State College residents. The initial plan was to run a pipeline along Burrowes Road and enter the plant on the College Avenue side, but borough residents voiced concerns over the safety of running a high-pressure gas line through residential neighborhoods.

However, the pipeline is designed to be incredibly safe and has several features that would prevent it from ever being a safety hazard.

“This pipeline is incredibly well designed and built with a pressure rating three times at what we’ll operate,” said Moser. Still, the borough forced Penn State to look at alternate routes and the pipeline will now run along Park Avenue, and then on to Curtain (via Shortlidge) until it reaches the WCSP.

With the pipeline issues finally resolved, Penn State had a firm plan to make the transition.

The transition is expected to take until 2017 and will involve the replacement of several boilers within the plant. Currently there are five boilers in the facility, and all of them already have natural gas burning capabilities. However, three of the current boilers will be replaced with two new natural gas boilers.

“The biggest challenge is going to be hitting our schedule,” noted Moser. “We realize that we have the best people on our team but it’s definitely a big job.”

Working on the transition will be especially difficult during the winter months, when the steam plant may provide around 400,000 pounds of steam per hour to the campus.

‘The winter peak is pretty high, so we need all of our boilers to be available during the winter,” explained Moser. Ultimately, the plan is for the boilers to be replaced in a way that allows uninterrupted service to the campus, which includes working around the various seasonal challenges the plant faces. In addition, the baghouse will be demolished, as well as the large stack. With the new empty space, OPP is considering adding a service building to improve the quality of the facility.

The immediate environmental impact between burning natural gas instead of coal is the most impressive part of this transition. The plant’s carbon footprint will drop by about half, while sulfur emissions will go to zero and NO and NO2 emissions will reduce dramatically.

The plant will also operate around 72 percent efficiency, thanks to the plant’s ability to provide heat and electricity to campus. However, Moser hopes to eventually improve the efficiency to around 80 percent.  When the gas is burned, it’ll turn water into high-pressure steam that will turn the turbines that generate electricity. After turning the turbines, the steam will come out at a lower pressure and that low-pressure steam is what goes to campus.

This process is called cogeneration, and it allows plants to operate at a much higher efficiency. If the plant only generated electricity, the efficiency might only be around 33 percent. It’s interesting to note cogeneration was part of the original design of the WCSP back in 1929.

“I want people to understand that this is not considered a green emission,” said Moser. “But it’s very low carbon and an efficient solution.”

Still, OPP is always looking to innovate. In the future, there are hopes to incorporate recovery steam generators that will allow for more electricity to be generated from the WCSP, which would reduce Penn State’s carbon footprint even more. Moser even mentioned the possibility of going with renewable energy in the future.

“We know there’s more jobs to come and we’re doing them. As jobs like solar come up and become economically competitive, we’ll do those,” he said.

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About the Author

Greg Schlosser

Greg is a senior majoring in energy engineering at Penn State. He is a big fan of Pittsburgh sports and sandwiches with coleslaw and french fries. You can email him at [email protected] or find him at the Phyrst drunkenly requesting the band to play "One Headlight."


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