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Penn State To End Coal Shipments This Month, Switch To Natural Gas

After 160 years of relying on coal for electricity and heat, Penn State will receive its last shipment this March. Then, the last bit of coal will be shoveled in April.

This change and all the sustainability changes made by the Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) will decrease greenhouse gases, increase efficiency and help the university comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Though, amazingly, most students might not realize what powers the heat that keeps them warm in the winter or powers the computers and printers used all over campus.But the switch from coal to natural gas didn’t happen overnight; OPP continuously worked throughout the years to become more and more sustainable. Many factors played a part in their decision.

One reason for the change is carbon dioxide emissions, Communications Director for OPP Alex Novak said. At its peak coal usage, the university had 25-30 trucks bringing roughly 350 tons of coal a day. By switching to gas, the university predicts a 37 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The university will also save money because it won’t need to haul coal from Kentucky and Ohio, which will keep the streets safer by getting rid of the 15-21 coal trucks that transported the coal.

OPP has been making sustainable changes for a while. Back in 2010, the East Campus Steam plant added a combustion turbine and heat recovery steam generator. This turbine is almost 50 percent more efficient than a regular typical power generator. While a typical power generator creates waste steam, this combustion turbine creates energy, captures the waste steam, and uses it to heat all the buildings through 17 miles of underground piping.

Penn State committed to this transition from coal to natural gas after considering alternatives in 2011. “This conversion is certainly historic, but it’s only the beginning of the story of how Penn State and the rest of the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through continual improvements in fuels, technologies, and (most importantly) behaviors,” Novak said.

While this switch will improve our environment, it is only the beginning and only one answer out of a pile. Many forms of power exist outside of natural gas and steam, for example wind, solar, and geothermal. Even Penn State solar power in some instances. Novak mentioned how OPP has some electric cars they charge with solar energy.

And there’s room for improvement in areas such as insulation in buildings, which can cut down on energy use and improve efficiency. Novak mentioned that in 2003, OPP undertook a conservation program where it redid the insulation in the Bryce Jordan Center over a ten-year period to stop the heat they found was escaping through the roof.

Novak also discussed the concept of district energy in which electricity and heat are made locally. District energy will be established further when Penn State switches over to natural gas which will increase the efficiency that comes along with not having to transport the coal to campus anymore. A gas line was built on campus by Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania to accommodate the new demand for gas.

There are a few concerns, however, with this change. Some members of the community oppose natural gas because of fracking or because it is a fossil fuel, not to mention concerns about job-loss of those who used to work with the coal. Penn State worked hard to ensure no jobs will be lost, overall pollutants will decrease, and sustainability overall will improve during this transition and after.

Another important group of people to consider in this is, of course, the students. OPP wants students to start learning and getting engaged with sustainability.

“We want students to know that there is a lot that they can learn outside of the classroom about how the world works,” Novak said. “Our power plants, right here at University Park, provide heat and a portion of our electricity. Those systems, those miles of steam pipes, along with the ones for carrying water to and from campus, are a learning resource. Students should reach out to [email protected] to find out more.”

Many other resources can be found on campus too. One volunteer group run by the Council of Lionhearts on campus, called Friday Night Lights Out, goes around turning off all the classroom lights, so they don’t remain on over the weekend. In some cases, becoming engaged can simply mean learning about what goes into all the things we take for granted (like the fact that 10 gallons of water go into 1 gallon of milk).

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About the Author

Erin Servey

Erin Servey writes and copy-edits for Onward State. She's a Junior Schreyer Honors Scholar and Paterno Fellow at Penn State, studying English and psychology, with a French minor. Editing, poetry, and photography are her passions. Send questions and comments via e-mail ([email protected]) and follow her on Twitter (@ErinEServey).

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