Penn State's switch to natural gas: Frequently Asked Questions

January 21, 2011

Penn State’s Switch to Natural Gas                                         

Frequently Asked Questions
1.     What exactly is the change that the University is making?
About 70,000 tons of coal is burned each year in four boilers at the West Campus Steam Plant at University Park to produce the steam used in more than 200 buildings for heating and process use. Currently, about 95 percent of the steam used at University Park is produced by the coal-fired boilers, with the remainder produced by burning natural gas or fuel oil. Steam is distributed to buildings via a network of 17 miles of underground piping. The current project involves converting our coal-fired steam production systems to natural gas. 
2.     Why is Penn State switching to natural gas at University Park?
A combination of factors including new regulations and the University’s commitment to environmentally sustainable business practices required a change to a different source of fuel for making steam. After analyzing a wide range of alternatives using a variety of factors including feasibility, reliability, risk, cost and environmental impact, Penn State arrived at natural gas as the best next step in its long-term energy plan.
3.     What are the environmental benefits of switching to natural gas?
There are environmental benefits to switching to natural gas and there are also challenges. According to the US Energy Information Agency, burning natural gas generates significantly fewer emissions of carbon dioxide and nearly all types of air pollutants than coal. Penn State estimates a 37 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from our steam plants by switching to natural gas. This reduction of 69,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide is an amount equal to the annual emissions of 12,400 cars or 5,500 average U.S. homes. Also, no trucks are needed to transport the fuel, which will save diesel fuel, emissions and reduce traffic. Finally, no material waste is generated, such as the fly or bottom ash produced from burning coal.
However, natural gas brings with it environmental challenges that Penn State will work with partners inside and outside the University to minimize. The exploration, extraction, processing and distribution of natural gas have impacts on the environment. 
Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research will continue to work to address the complete range of issues presented by the development of the Marcellus Shale.
4.     What is Penn State’s long-term energy plan for University Park and how does natural gas fit into it?
Long term planning is crucial to the successful operation of any central heating system, and the University Park steam system has operated reliably and successfully for many decades. Energy strategies for University Park have been revisited and re-adjusted many times over the years. Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant has hired consultants, worked with faculty researchers and conducted some of its own assessments on a variety of renewable energy sources to determine how they might be utilized in University Park’s energy portfolio. 
Most recently, an effort began in 2006 to re-analyze potential energy sources such as solar, bio-energy, wind, geothermal, different forms of energy storage technologies and more. The potential of each of these sources varies, with none proving viable when evaluated against factors including feasibility, reliability, risk and cost. For now, the switch to natural gas is considered transitional while we wait for renewable technologies to mature and solutions to prove scalable for a University of our size.
5.     Will using natural gas cost the University more money?
Because of new regulations and increasing prices, any solution was going to cost more both in terms of upfront capital costs, and in operation and maintenance costs. The upfront capital costs of a project that would allow us to continue to burn coal are higher than the upfront costs of a project to switch to natural gas. But the annual operating and maintenance cost increases associated with burning gas are higher than those associated with continuing to burn coal. Overall, switching to natural gas is more expensive.
6.     Has Penn State invested in energy conservation and efficiency in order to reduce the amount of energy that it needs?
Yes. Penn State has invested around $10 million annually for more than six years which has led to an overall 7.5 percent reduction in energy use, despite the fact that during that same time period the University added more than one million square feet of building space. This investment in energy efficiency will continue and is now complemented by programs to educate and engage employees and students in the responsible use of resources. Visit for more information on our programs.


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Last Updated April 15, 2011