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November 15, 2013
Vol. 55 No. 10

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SU begins next phase in natural gas switch

Earlier this year, Susquehanna made the announcement that it would begin making the transition from using its coal-fired steam plant to generate heat in the campus buildings to natural gas by the 2014-2015 academic school year.
Associate Professor of English Drew Hubbell said, "We've known institutionally that the coal-fired steam plant had to be replaced." Hubbell, chair of the Sustainability Committee back in 2008 when the decision was made, said that aside from the plant being over 50 years old and exceeding its life span, upcoming clean air regulations that will start in 2014 will mean that the coal-fired steam plant would need expensive retrofit done to keep it up to code.
Hubbell said that when the project began, Susquehanna had commissioned an engineering firm to give us a cost-estimate evaluation of our current system, the cost of retro-fitting and several other options.
With this project being years in the making, Director of Facilities Chris Bailey and Vice President of Finance and Administration Michael Coyne said that things have progressed quickly. Phase one of the project was completed last summer, according to Bailey and Coyne, when all of the natural gas lines were laid out around campus.
"The service on campus, the actual pipes that fed gas to campus: we needed to put in additional lines in order to do that, because we were adding service to buildings that never had service before," Bailey said. "We basically tore up all of the roads on campus and put in new lines underneath those roads."
According to Coyne, the next phase of the project will include connecting these gas lines into the buildings and to high-efficiency boilers that will be used for heating purposes.
Bailey said: "We're in the process of actually designing the mechanical spaces where these new boilers are going to go within the individual buildings. Each building is sort of its own project because each mechanical space is unique. It has mostly to do with sizing the boilers to provide the adequate amount of heat, but you don't want to oversize them because then you're wasting energy."
According to Bailey, many of these mechanical spaces were never designed to have these types of equipment in it. Coyne said some of the boilers are going to have a hard time fitting into the buildings.
Aside from working to find ways to make sure that these, what Bailey described as vending- machine sized, boilers can fit into each building, there are still safety clearances that must be followed, such as how far apart they have to be and how far they have to be from the ceiling.
According to both Bailey and Coyne, once this phase of the project is complete, they will start the bid process where Bailey said they will create bid documents and go to contractors in January to actually start bidding the work to get cost estimates back and then select the contractors who will actually be doing the work.
Bailey said that he hopes to have the project budget finalized by January in order to select the bidders, then pre-purchase the equipment they would need in order to be able to start work immediately after graduation in May.
Coyne said, "[The old coal boilers were only] about 70 percent efficient, so only 70 percent of the energy that the coal was burning was caught and then out of that 45 percent of that was lost," meaning that the buildings ultimately received only 25 percent of the heat.
The new boilers are about 99 percent efficient, and they're right in the building. This means that the additional 45 percent would not be lost on its route to the buildings.
"All in all, I wish we weren't using natural gas that's the bad news, but the good news is that we are going to be using very little of it," Coyne said.
According to Bailey and Coyne, with the coal-fired steam plant, working and running the plant is a full-time job. With the university switching to natural gas, there has been concern over what would happen to those individuals who currently work in the plant.
Coyne said, "That is the toughest part. People don't know those folks because they're in that building, they work 'round the clock, and there are seven of them. Some of them have been here a long time."
Coyne said that there are plans to try and help to accommodate these individuals. He said that within the university, there are two job openings that two of the workers will be able to receive, one worker may be retiring, and they have been trying out different individuals in new areas, such as landscaping and maintenance.
"We don't think that all seven of them are going to have a soft landing, but there will be some sort of severance package. It is hard," Coyne said.
With this decision being years in the making, Hubbell, Bailey and Coyne said that they left no option unexamined and that in the end, natural gas, while they may have some concerns about it, was the best cost-effective decision they could go for.
Hubbell said: "We were very pleased that we were going to be moving off of coal. Coal is a disaster for sustainability, but we were very concerned of the likelihood that we would be going to natural gas, because we were aware of all the issues with fracking and just that natural gas continues to be a carbon producing greenhouse gas. It's a fossil fuel."
Another plus that Hubbell mentioned was that by switching to natural gas, the university would be lowering its carbon output by at least 78 percent.
Hubbell said that by using the distributed natural gas heating system, it will allow the university the chance in the future to transition to fully renewable sources of power on a case by case, building by building basis. Hubbell and the members of the committee, who conducted extensive research with Professor of Sociology Dave Ramsaran, Associate Professor of Economics Matthew Rousu and Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Derek Straub, said this change could be a huge asset to the university in the upcoming years.


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