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Renovations reducing pollution from IU Bloomington Central Heating Plant

There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans cranked up their thermostats in the winter and blasted their air conditioners in the summer with little thought to the effects of their actions. But as we begin to see the extent of air pollution's impacts, and as energy prices soar, society must come to grips with the reality that such consumption is unsustainable. No community can escape this acute concern, and Indiana University is no exception.

While IU purchases its electricity from Duke Energy, it generates its own steam for heating campus at the Central Heating Plant, located on the north side of campus. The problem? The plant is coal-fired, and coal is anything but clean-burning.

Physical Plant image

A crane lifts a gas-fired boiler into place as part of the Central Heating Plant renovation.

Print-Quality Photo

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coal combustion releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds, which have harmful effects on human health and the environment. Since the mid-20th century, IU students and Bloomington residents have been voicing their concerns about pollution from the plant, and more recently, have been pushing for cleaner ways to generate energy for the campus.

So if coal is so detrimental, why is IU still burning it? Furthermore, why is the university renovating the plant, rather than looking for a more sustainable energy source?

For the Central Heating Plant, the current renovations are an effort to make the coal combustion and energy delivery process as efficient as possible, with the smallest environmental impact. Although it is not an ideal, long-term solution, refurbishing the plant will curb pollution and allow it to operate in the cleanest manner possible with the available resources.

Given the present fiscal and technological climate, the switch to an alternative energy production process would be difficult, to say the least. Coal is a cheap, locally produced fuel. While several of the boilers at the Central Heating Plant have the ability to burn natural gas, which is a cleaner fuel, IU saves money by running primarily on coal, burning 70,000 tons a year. What's more, coal is engrained in the state's economy. In 2007, Indiana's 27 mines produced 35 million short tons of coal and employed almost 3,000 workers.

"The use of coal is an economic decision," says Mark Menefee, IU assistant director for utilities. "The use of natural gas would reduce our current emissions, but at three times the cost of coal. The budget increase would be over $15 million per year, or $400 for each student on the Bloomington campus. We have chosen to use advanced technology to reduce the environmental impact of coal."

Calls for renovations and cleaner, more efficient technology were generally set aside because of budgetary constraints. However, when the Central Heating Plant was facing new emissions control legislation a few years ago, administrators approved the current renovations. Adopted in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments, Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards imposed technology-based limits on the amount of Hazardous Air Pollutants a source can emit.

Without major changes, the Central Heating Plant would not have been able to operate in compliance with MACT regulations. The IU Board of Trustees approved a $34 million, state-funded renovation to help the plant clean up its act. The project includes the removal of older, coal-fired boilers, the installation of a high-efficiency gas boiler, and the addition of emissions control equipment. Once the renovation is complete, the plant will operate with a total of 68 percent fewer emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.

"All sources of energy have problems of one sort or another," Menefee says. "With the use of advanced technology, the CHP can continue to utilize coal to provide the IU campus with steam heat in the most efficient, economical, environmentally sound manner it can, given our resource constraints."

Since the renovations were approved, the university has demonstrated that it is committed to seeing them through. Even when the MACT legislation that spurred the remodeling in the first place was vacated, the IU administration decided to continue the project as planned. While only time will tell how our nationwide energy dilemma is resolved, there is no question that these renovations are helping the Indiana University move forward on the track toward sustainability.