U strives for clean energy sources

The U doesn’t have control over all fuel sources used to make its energy.

U strives for clean energy sources

Rebecca Harrington

The University of Minnesota used coal for less than 1 percent of its total energy production since last June.

 The Southeast Steam Plant, which heats the University’s East and West banks usually relies on coal boilers to produce steam, using natural gas only on the coldest days.

But with this year’s unusually warm winter requiring less steam production and low gas prices, the plant switched to its natural gas boilers, saving almost $5 million in energy costs.

“The fact that gas is priced where it is right now and everything being what it is — it’s easier to burn — it’d be like an insult to the environment to be burning coal. There’s no need to,” said Jerome Malmquist, director of University Energy Management.

The University’s plant permit allows the plant to burn coal for up to 30 percent of its energy. In the past years, the plant typically burned about 28 percent, Malmquist said. But this year the winter was so mild, the only coal the plant burned was for tests.

“The only reason we burned that coal was to make sure we could meet our standards if we had to burn coal,” Malmquist said.

To keep its permit, the plant is required to burn coal to ensure its burners remain functional in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Malmquist said the school will continue to use natural gas for its primary boilers. Even in the coldest winters, he said the plant will probably not burn more than 9 percent coal.

Of the University’s entire carbon footprint, only 30 percent comes from the steam plant, and 51 percent comes from the electricity purchased from Xcel Energy, which the University has no control over.

“Whatever Xcel uses, that’s the mix [of energy sources] that we have. Their mix is our mix,” said Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president of Facilities Management.

Xcel Energy’s “mix” in Minnesota is 44 percent coal, 29 percent nuclear power, 7 percent natural gas and 20 percent renewable sources.

These renewable sources include wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. Xcel Energy plans to use 30 percent renewable energy by 2020, said Scott Getty, the University’s Xcel Energy key account manager.

The University hopes to decrease the amount of energy purchased from Xcel Energy by renovating the Old Main Utility Building.

The University requested $54 million in funding for the project as part of its capital request to the Legislature. However, both the House and the Senate versions of this year’s bonding bill excluded the project.

Berthelsen said the project would reduce the University’s carbon footprint by 10 percent, which translates to approximately 65,000 metric tons of carbon because it would only operate on natural gas.

“Less fuel is being used on the campus to both heat and power the campus,” Berthelsen said of the proposed project, “which means we’re going to buy less electricity from Xcel so we could take a little more control over what fuels are … used to heat and power the campus.”

While the University is one of Xcel Energy’s largest energy purchasers, Malmquist said the utility companies are not against projects like this one.

“We always encourage customers to look at the economics of energy,” Getty said. “We believe that conservation is the foundation of good energy economics, which the U of M has done well. From there, long-term rate and price stability of energy is key. It’s an economic decision that every customer makes based on their own use.”

The University’s use is what Facilities Management has been reducing, which Berthelsen said is the fastest way to save money.

They analyzed cost per ton of carbon reduced and determined it was the best way to save money.

“That showed that energy conservation is the best investment at this point,” Berthelsen said.