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Virginia Tech converting boilers at steam plant from coal to natural gas

(WDBJ)
Published: Jun. 1, 2016 at 12:44 PM EDT
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Virginia Tech is making its power plant cleaner for the environment.

The work began in Summer 2015 when the university installed a four mile-long, 8 inch in diameter pipeline across campus.

Now instead of running the boilers on coal, the school will use natural gas which will reduce carbon emissions.

Virginia Tech's boiler conversion project is part of the school's Climate Action Committment that was established in 2009.

With this change, the school's power plant will cut its carbon emissions in half by 2020.

Chief of Staff in the school's Facilities Operations John Beach explained, "It's in line with the university's Climate Action Committment to be environmentally responsible and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in operations."

In 2009, the university established the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment to set long term campus sustainability goals. Among them, Virginia Tech has committed to reaching a 50 percent recycling rate by 2020, improving energy efficiency where and whenever possible in campus buildings, to achieving a minimum LEED rating of silver for all new construction, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

To date, two of the plant’s five boilers have been upgraded to burn natural gas and continue to cogenerate electrical power. Additional changes are planned as the university reduces the use of coal over the next few years.

The pipeline will be cutting carbon amounts and costs, as the new pipeline could help save Virginia Tech $1 million per year in operating and fuel costs.

"The savings will be phased in but we do expect to realize increased savings over the period of the next four years," Beach said.

This new pipeline is not just going to be helping Virginia Tech's campus, it's also going to help local gas users, especially coming up in the winter months.

"The powerplant can be a very large user of gas when we're firing gas into the boilers," Beach said. "The distribution network, prior to the installation of the pipeline, did not have sufficient capacity at very cold times of the year to insure reliable operation for all customers."

So ATMOS Energy customers in the area no longer have to compete with the plant for gas to heat their homes.

But it's not just for when it's cold. The school expects to see benefits starting immediately as it gets warmer out.

"The campus depends on a steam untility throughout the year, obviously in the winter for heating, but also for processed steam even during that summer," Beach explained. "We operate continuously 24/7, 365 days per year."

Beach explained it's uncommon for a university to have a plant like this on campus, and it's important they run it the right way moving forward.

The school could not disclose how much they paid to make get the pipeline, just that it was thanks to a partnership with ATMOS that brought it in.

Here is the news release from Virginia Tech:
As part of the university’s ongoing effort to improve campus sustainability, Virginia Tech is converting boilers at its Central Steam Plant from operating on coal to natural gas, a change that will reduce carbon emissions at the plant by nearly 50 percent by 2020. In addition, the boiler conversion project could save the university more than $1 million a year in operating and fuel costs. Virginia Tech’s Central Steam Plant annually generates a steam output greater than 943 billion BTUs (British thermal units, one of which is approximately the heat produced by burning a single wooden match) and provides more than 100 buildings with a portion of their heat, hot water, and electricity needs on the Blacksburg campus. “The conversion from coal to natural gas is yet one more way Virginia Tech is committed to the sustainability efforts outlined in our 2009 climate action plan,” said President Tim. D. Sands. “We are committed to finding solutions to many of the challenges the world faces, and sustainability is among them. As we work to solve these challenges through our teaching and research, we have the opportunity to use our own campus as a learning environment and to not only test, but to live out future solutions.” In 2009, the university established the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment to set long term campus sustainability goals. Among them, Virginia Tech has committed to reaching a 50 percent recycling rate by 2020, improving energy efficiency where and whenever possible in campus buildings, to achieving a minimum LEED rating of silver for all new construction, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Through an agreement with ATMOS Energy, the university’s gas distributor, a new, larger gas line was installed from the Corporate Research Center to the university’s Central Steam Plant last year The new 20,000-foot-long pipeline is eight inches in diameter and allows Virginia Tech to receive uninterruptable gas service to the plant. The new pipeline has the capacity to handle the energy needs of the campus today, and many years into the future. Previously, the Central Steam Plant operated on a firm (uninterruptible) gas contract with ATMOS Energy, meaning the university had to be prepared to switch completely off of natural gas within 30 minutes to insure supply to more critical gas users in the area. To date, two of the plant’s five boilers have been upgraded to burn natural gas and continue to cogenerate electrical power. Additional changes are planned as the university reduces the use of coal over the next few years. “The result of these improvements will greatly reduce our carbon emissions while maintaining reliable, economical energy to our campus,” said Vice President for Administration Sherwood Wilson. Related sustainability initiatives Since the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment in 2009, The university has made significant progress in making a more sustainable campus. Virginia Tech has increased its recycling rate from 36 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2015. Factors contributing to this include: The switch to compostable and reusable to-go containers in on-campus dining halls in 2015 The transition to single stream recycling Designated recycling areas for football tailgaters The installation of nearly 100 BigBelly Solar compactors in 2012 In addition, several more campus projects have improved energy efficiency, conservation, and alternative transportation efforts. Among those are: The installation of water bottle refill stations in residence halls and academic buildings. A bike parking corral near Pamplin Hall A covered bike rack in front of the Graduate Life Center Funding for the Ytoss program The addition of electric hand dryers Upgrades to streetlamps Four new bicycle fix-it stations Installation of a new solar charging table Virginia Tech is working to make sure all new construction and major renovation projects have received the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED buildings use less energy and water, improve indoor air quality, and use locally manufactured products and material. In addition to the 12 buildings that are already LEED certified, the 73,000-square-foot Classroom Building now under construction is being built to LEED certification standards and planning efforts are underway for the creation of a Multi-Modal Transit Facility which is expected to be the first LEED platinum certified building on the Virginia Tech campus.