By Kurt Walters
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Clean energy advocates have tried to make a case for shutting down the University of Virginia’s coal-fired heating plant by emphasizing coal’s public health risks.
However, university officials say that the $73 million renovation of the Main Heating Plant, which finished in 2008, included strong pollution controls that greatly reduce the emissions that environmentalists say are harmful.
“First of all [we] control our source of coal – we don’t do any mountaintop [removal] coal sourcing – and then we clean it up through our emission controls systems,” said Donald Sundgren, chief facilities officer at UVa. “We also work very hard at energy conservation to reduce the need for [coal].”
At a press event last week, however, students in the Sierra Student Coalition’s “Beyond Coal” campaign underscored the public health benefits and “healthier community” that they said could result from moving the heating plant off of coal.
“The energy produced by this coal goes directly into university buildings, but the [health] costs are felt by the whole community,” said Rebecca Dudley, a UVa second year student.
Environmentalists have listed particulates and nitrous oxides as two byproducts of coal combustion that can trigger asthma. However, some employees of nearby businesses said they did not notice any adverse effects.
“All you see is clouds [of water vapor] basically,” said Ari Vegodsky, an employee at Jimmy John’s across the street from the heating plant. “There’s no constant hacking or coughing.”
According to university officials, the plant’s emission controls remove 99.9 percent of particulate emissions, and use the “best available control technology” to limit nitrous oxide emissions to half the level allowed by environmental permits. The plant also removes 92 percent of acid rain-causing sulfur oxides. Remains from combustion are shipped out to companies to use as fill dirt or in concrete production.
Beyond Coal leaders also expressed concerns about mercury, a neurotoxin linked to birth defects. University representatives said that the UVa heating plant emitted 4.6 ounces of mercury last year, but were unsure how they would compare to recently proposed EPA standards. Currently there is no national mercury emission standard.
“Until [the regulations] actually get out there and get promulgated, I can’t really comment on [whether we’ll meet them],” said Cheryl Gomez, the university’s director of energy and utilities, adding “[but] 4.6 ounces is very low.”
Copies of the proposed EPA rules for coal-fired electricity plants, which are similar to the non-electricity generating UVa heating plant, state that mercury limits would be 0.008 lb/Giga Watt hour for existing plants. Based on data provided by the university, the heating plant would meet this with 0.00117 lb/GWh.
The clean energy promoters said that much of their opposition to the UVa plant is symbolic resistance against coal power generally. They also note at least one malfunction at the heating plant in which significantly elevated levels of emissions were released.
Gomez dated the malfunction to a day in the early 2000s when several boilers failed in extremely low temperatures. There have been no malfunctions after the replacement of aging boilers at the plant in 2008 she said.
Absent from Beyond Coal’s message at the recent press event was any mention of climate change, though many environmentalists cite coal’s high greenhouse gas emissions as a primary flaw. This is despite the fact that as UVa’s Sundgren says, “there’s no real way” to catch carbon dioxide emissions from coal.
“I think that people care more about public health than global warming,” said Chris Linsmayer, an organizer with the SSC, adding that climate change is still a priority for the group. “We didn’t specifically mention the words ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change,’ but it’s implied in the word ‘sustainability.’”
UVa made a sustainability commitment in June, pledging among other things to reduce its “carbon footprint” of greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2009 levels by 2025. Heating is responsible for 35 percent of the university’s carbon footprint, with around 50 percent coming from electricity purchased from Dominion.
The university is planning to experiment with alternate fuel types. Currently, the university’s heating operations use 73 percent coal with mostly natural gas as the remainder.
Officials hope this spring to conduct a test burn of wood pellets mixed into coal at concentrations of 10-20 percent. The lower energy density of wood means that burning 100 percent wood pellets would not be feasible, said Sundgren.
An environmental impact task force of faculty, staff and students – including Beyond Coal activists – will soon be kicked off to look at the university’s energy future. Some students seem unlikely to yield on coal use citing communities harmed by mountaintop removal coal mining, water pollution and air pollution.
UVa student Dudley said, “Any affiliation the university has with the coal industry links us to these dying communities.”