One year later: Reflecting on Penn State’s switch from coal to natural gas

Katie Klodowski, communications intern
April 17, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — One year ago, Penn State’s University Park campus officially switched from coal to natural gas to power and heat the buildings on campus. The “Last Day of Coal” celebration in March of 2016, which beckoned in a new era for Penn State, also recognized the major role coal played in the history of the University. The anniversary of the switch to natural gas on March 30 gave the Office of Physical Plant’s Superintendent of Steam Services Paul Moser a chance to reflect on the University’s rich past, current achievements and its bright future.

Reflecting on our past: The importance of coal at Penn State

The University Park campus utilized coal for almost its entire existence — nearly 150 years. Initially, the University used coal because, besides trees, it was the primary local resource available. Between the two, the energy value of coal was greater, making it the obvious choice for heating and powering the small campus. In addition, with Penn State rather isolated in the center of the state, the best option was to bring in coal from a local supplier found in nearby Clearfield.

Using coal allowed the steam plant to meet University demand for decades. However, it did have its challenges from time to time. “For many years, we didn’t even have a roof over the coal,” said Moser. “There were very dedicated people who were often called out in the middle of the night to physically move wet, sloppy coal into boilers that didn’t want to burn. People worked very hard to meet those challenges to keep campus a comfortable place.

Pennsylvania has a long history with coal and countless people built their lives off of it. Because of this, last year’s celebration was a bittersweet moment for many. “There have been some really good people who have spent their whole careers working here, raising families, and living a great life because of our reliance on coal,” said Moser. “Because of this job they were able to put their kids through college.”

According to Moser, at the celebration there was a real understanding that it marked the end of a certain way of life here at Penn State. Not only were current employees invited, many retirees and people who worked to make Penn State a successful coal-powered establishment came to the event.

University President Eric Barron, whose background is in earth and mineral sciences, truly understood and communicated the University’s history and future. At the celebration, he remarked, “Without a reliable source of energy, our teaching, research and service activities would come to a halt. After all, it’s hard for students to take notes wearing mittens, or for our faculty to conduct a multi-million dollar research enterprise without electricity. “

Until very recently, coal was the cheapest resource available in Pennsylvania, making it economically beneficial. Now, however, natural gas has become the economic choice. “While the celebration last year was an opportunity to celebrate what we did for a long time, which was use a local resource to power our little community, it was also a time to celebrate ushering in a new era where we utilize a different local resource, which is both cheaper and more efficient,” said Moser.

Milestones years in the making

Switching from coal to natural gas was a complicated three-year process. However, the project itself has been very successful on a number of levels. According to Moser, “We’ve hit all of our dates and we’ve stayed on budget. Most importantly, the steam plants continue to supply the amount of steam that the University needs when it needs it.” Throughout the conversion, every building on campus still needed to receive the necessary amount of heat, which made trying to switch out units while still providing steam to campus no easy task.

In the search for solutions, the University did consider other options, including continuing with coal. This would have involved adding two more large devices to the steam plant to remove hazardous air pollutants, while also finding a method to dispose of those pollutants. Even though it would have met the current environmental standards, it is unlikely the method would have met future changes to those standards. Ultimately a coal-based solution would have served only as a temporary band-aid, said Moser.

Ultimately, the switch was about making the air quality in State College better, complying with the law and creating a more efficient and economical system. In 2012 the EPA established the Boiler MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) Standards, which are aimed at reducing hazardous air-pollutant emissions. The University had to be in compliance by the end of 2016, and, how that was accomplished was up to the discretion of Penn State. Not only did the University take on a project that complied with the law, the project also cut carbon emissions almost in half and lowered all other pollutants.

In addition, the switch to natural gas by both the East and West Campus Steam Plants improved upon the University’s already highly efficient District Energy System. In 2011, the system operated at 72 percent, but will improve to more than 80 percent, which is two times the efficiency of the electric grid. A big part of what makes campus’s energy usage so efficient is that the steam is made and used in very close proximity. In other words, it is integral to have the East and West Campus plants in their respective locations — to move them farther away from campus would decrease efficiency and be wasteful.

Looking to the future — goals for 2050

As of today, the switch has created some big and positive changes. There are no longer 3,250 trucks a year bringing coal to State College and 325 taking away the ash; coal handling was eliminated; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were significantly reduced. According to Moser, “The air quality in State College is dramatically cleaner now.” However, Moser recognizes that the University still has strides to make: “We have air-quality and emissions goals for 2050 and we just can’t get there with this current model.”

University Park is also a growing campus. “Penn State is a vibrant place, and people want to go here, so we’re constantly expanding and making things better,” continued Moser. In order to both keep up with campus demand and reduce emissions, the University will have to explore expanding on what it has already done and investigate alternative options in the near future.

As for what that means exactly — Penn State is trying to figure that out along with the rest of the world. According to Shelley McKeague, a compliance specialist in the Office of Physical Plant’s Engineering Services group, some of the options to continue reducing our GHG emissions include “adding additional generation and combined heat and power that matches our steam load, adding biomass and making additional distribution system upgrades.” But, says McKeague, greater efforts to reduce electricity consumption and potentially moving to renewable energy will be needed to continue the forward progress in lowering emissions. This will most likely include pursuing solar energy as the cost continues to fall, with placements on roofs, over parking structures and via ground-mount. A solar master plan is currently in development. The University also must continue bringing students, professors and the downtown community together to decide what is best for the area.

OPP solar panel

In 2015, students set up 255-watt solar panels outside of the Office of Physical Plant Building, one of many locations for solar panels on the University Park campus.

IMAGE: Penn State

“There are so many parallels between our little community at Penn State and the rest of the world, which is what I love,” said Moser. “We all face many of the same challenges. Ultimately, what comes next depends on our economic model and what is appropriate for Penn State and State College.”

As for right now, the one-year anniversary of Penn State’s switch from coal to natural gas provides a moment of clarity for Moser and others focused on the energy discussion. For many, taking a look at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come leads to inspiration. According to Moser, “We have our traditions here and we hold them very close. However, we wouldn’t be the research university that we are if we weren’t constantly trying to innovate.”

  • Coal truck delivering coal to the West Campus Steam Plant

    The last coal truck delivered the final load of coal in March of 2016. The switch to natural gas eliminated 3,250 trucks a year that previously brought coal to campus.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated April 17, 2017