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Behind The Scenes At Penn State: What’s Keeping You Warm This Winter?

If you’ve ever been on the west side of campus and wondered, “What exactly is that power plant over there?”, you’re probably like most Penn State students. It’s a little known fact to students that this plant — along with its counterpart on the east side of campus — is what powers all of Penn State’s steam needs and most of its electrical needs. The West Campus and East Campus Steam Plants are some of the most interesting features Penn State has to offer.

Built in 1929, the West Campus Steam Plant (WCSP) originally produced electricity and steam by burning coal. The coal was originally brought by train via the Bellefonte Central Railroad, which helped passengers and freight alike reach State College. Coal deliveries by train were stopped altogether in 1959, so Penn State started receiving its coal deliveries by truck. These trucks could be seen crowding the streets of State College every day until the steam plant switched to burning natural gas to satisfy an EPA regulation in 2013.

Not only does the West Campus Steam Plant power the University, its counterpart, the East Campus Steam Plant (ECSP), opened in 1972, helps the WCSP also power buildings on campus. According to the Penn State Office of Physical Plant (OPP), the East and West Campus Steam Plants produce the steam and electricity that powers more than 200 campus buildings. On average, the plants produce 100 percent of the University’s steam needs and about 20 percent of its electrical needs and operate at 70 percent efficiency, more than twice as efficient as a commercial power plant.

As a widely recognized research institute in a world where greenhouse gas emissions are running rampant, Penn State long ago decided to take the reigns on helping our environment. According to the OPP, with the plant producing its own electricity and not having to connect to the commercial grid, Penn State saves 45,181 metric tons of greenhouse gases from being polluted into the atmosphere. To put this number into perspective, one metric ton equates to roughly 2,200 pounds, which means 45,181 metric tons is nearly 100 million pounds. The tallest building in the United States, One World Trade Center, standing at 1,776 feet tall, weighs about 40,000 metric tons. So, just by having its own steam plants, Penn State saved the same weight (and then some) of the tallest building in the United States from polluting the air in the form of greenhouse gases. With Penn State’s plan of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2020, it is a huge step in becoming a healthier and more sustainable University.

Although many students may walk by the steam plants everyday and spare them a thought, they are the reason those same students aren’t freezing in class. They are also a major reason why Penn State is ranked as one of the greenest colleges in the United States. Of all the sustainability efforts universities have been incorporating lately, Penn State started long ago on its way to a self-sustaining campus, at least in terms of electricity and steam. The ability to be self-sustaining is a major reason why we can all live in a cleaner State College.

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About the Author

Matt Coleman

Matt Coleman is a writer for Onward State. His hometown is North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a little under an hour from Pittsburgh. He is a sophomore majoring in Natural Resource Engineering in Biological Engineering. Please e-mail questions and comments to [email protected] Also, follow him on Twitter @cole_man2.


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