Reagan Richmond, Executive Director of the Southern Energy Network, contributed to and edited this blogpost.
When Gov. Bill Haslam gave his State of the State address on January 28, he expressed his plans for the coal-fired steam plant located on the University of Tennessee’s campus to become more environmentally friendly. Usually, for coal plants to become more environmentally friendly they either have to retire or be converted to run on an alternative type of fuel. UT has decided to choose the latter option and is currently working on plans to convert the plant to run on natural gas.
The plant was built in 1961 and is not outfitted with the most recent pollution control technologies to remove harmful air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. In order to comply with EPA’s more stringent air emission regulations, which call for plants to significantly decrease toxic air emissions by April 2015, coal plant operators all over the country are making decisions on what to do with their older, uncontrolled facilities. According to news articles, the University of Tennessee is Knox County’s second largest air polluter – meaning the University needs to clean up its act or face the consequences of noncompliance with EPA regulations.
Converting the UT plant from coal to natural gas will cost the University $25 million; the University is asking the state to foot $24 million of that cost. State funding is contingent on approval of the TN General Assembly and the resolution of a legal dispute involving funds due to the state from a tobacco lawsuit settlement. The University claims that converting to natural gas could save between $4-5 million a year in utility costs. As the plant operates now, it is extremely inefficient and, according to UT Associate Vice Chancellor Dave Irvin, converting to natural gas would improve efficiency over ten percent. Chancellor Irvin also points out the significant environmental benefits of this conversion:
“It will reduce our emissions by 50 percent, our carbon dioxide emissions by two thirds. And to put that into context, that’s the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the road on a daily basis,” said UT Associate Vice Chancellor Dave Irvin.
Over the past few years, the University has made great strides in becoming a leader in sustainability and clean energy, beginning with the student-led Green Fund initiative in 2004, in which UT set a goal to be climate neutral by 2061. In 2005, the University’s Student Facilities Fees were increased to establish funding for sustainability initiatives – a move that was precipitated by a student vote. One of the oldest and most iconic buildings on campus, Ayres Hall, recently became LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. As a result, UT is now ranked #10 nationally by the EPA on its Green Power Partnership Top 20 Colleges and Universities List.
It is important to remember, however, that natural gas is still a fossil fuel and when burned it still results in the emission of carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change. A recent letter to the editor (written by former SACE intern Nick Alderson) to UT’s school paper, The Daily Beacon, called for the University’s coal plant to be retired and replaced with a renewable generation source like geothermal electricity. Although renewable energy generation sources typically have much higher capital costs than dirtier forms of generation, they usually have little to no fuel costs and require less maintenance and operation than coal or natural gas plants. Choosing to repower a coal plant with natural gas is undeniably a step in the right direction toward a cleaner, less carbon intensive energy future and we applaud UT for beginning to invest in reducing its carbon footprint.