Penn State approves plans for steam plant conversion to natural gas

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State’s Board of Trustees today (Nov. 16) approved the final plans for the modification of the West Campus Steam Plant on the University Park campus that will convert the coal-powered plant to natural gas.

The Board also authorized a 30-year contract with Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania Inc. The plans have been designed by the firm of Burns and McDonnell of St. Louis, and the total projected cost of the conversion is $48.3 million.

Penn State’s University Park campus uses steam for heating, cooling, cooking, lab work and laundry in more than 200 buildings. Steam is distributed to buildings via a network of 17 miles of underground piping. The West Campus Steam Plant, built in 1930, provides primary steam production, while the East Campus Steam Plant, built in 1972, serves peak steam demands. Historically, most of the steam was produced by burning coal, with the remainder by natural gas or fuel oil.

A new Environmental Protection Agency regulation, with an expected compliance date of 2015, will require reductions in emissions from the University’s coal-fired boilers. Over the last few years, the University has studied and discussed options for complying with upcoming regulatory changes while addressing the age and capacity of the campus steam plants, the long-term cost implications and the University’s commitment to meeting its sustainability goals. The first option considered was to install scrubbing equipment to continue burning coal. After considering all variables, the University determined that the most viable solution to continue to heat the campus is to convert the University’s coal-fired steam production systems to burn natural gas.

Using natural gas provides a higher certainty of compliance with the impending clean-air regulations. Analysis shows that it will cost less to modify the plant to burn gas than to continue to burn coal. Truck traffic to the plant will be reduced. The switch to gas will allow the University to renew its aging fleet of boilers and position the plant for future enhancements. In addition, using natural gas will reduce the production of greenhouse gases by 37 percent.

To accommodate the increase in natural gas demand, Columbia Gas will upgrade its natural gas service to the plant. It plans to install a new gas line through State College Borough from its existing line near the bottom of Porter Road, along Bellaire Avenue, East Prospect Avenue and Burrowes Road. The new gas line will enter the plant on the College Avenue side.

The scope of the project also includes modifications to the plant to accommodate two new gas-fired boilers, demolition of the smokestack and baghouse, and the addition of a building to house displaced offices, shops and storage spaces. The University expects to be burning all gas by the spring of 2015, and the new building should be complete by the end of 2017. For more information on the conversion to natural gas, visit

Converting to gas will increase the plant’s overall operating costs by about $5.5 million per year, but the modifications required for continued use of coal would increase the plant’s operating costs by $10.2 million per year.

“The University will continue to add renewable alternatives to its energy portfolio as the technologies mature and prove scalable for a University the size of Penn State,” said Ford Stryker, associate vice president, Office of Physical Plant. “In addition, the University will continue to invest in the energy conservation efforts that have helped energy use drop to 2003 levels, despite the addition of more than 1 million square feet of building space over the same period.”

Penn State's focus on energy efficiency is complemented by programs to educate and engage employees and students in the responsible use of resources.

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Last Updated November 21, 2012