Categorized | State Side

Power Struggle

The first thing a visitor to 15 Olds Hall notices is the darkness. Keeping the lights off is one way Terry Link, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, works to reduce the university’s effect on the environment. Past the darkened computer monitors and over the stray telephone wires, he sits by his large picture window enjoying the natural light it provides. Link, unlike the majority of students on campus, knows that the energy powering his office comes from burning coal.[much]
The T.B. Simon power plant, located south of campus on Service Road, supplies all the electricity and heat to campus. The building is surrounded by black mountains of coal, which is burned as the plant’s primary source of fuel. The current rate of consumption is 250,000 tons of coal per year, which breaks down to way more than 1 million pounds of coal a day, with the cost for coal alone exceeding $58,000 per day.
Link considers the amount of coal consumed by MSU excessive. “We’re using way too much, and we continue to use too much,” Link said. He is also concerned with the pollutants released from burning coal and the fact that it is not a renewable energy source.
However, his concerns are tempered because the Simon power plant is one of the most efficient of its kind. He acknowledges the benefit of the plant’s co-generating operation, which means the steam produced to turn the generating turbines is used to heat the buildings on campus as well. This doubles the efficiency of the plant and keeps the cost of powering the campus much lower. Yet, no matter how well the plant uses its resources, burning coal will always produce pollutants. According to a recent study by the office of campus sustainability, the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted into the air has been rising steadily over the past months. Link thinks the best way to reduce the emissions is to lower the demand. “It’s no one’s problem but ours,” Link said. “There is no reason why we can’t cut energy consumption on this campus by 30 percent.”
To help achieve this, Link is trying to convince the administration to look into the energy wasted when computer labs run as many as 16 hours per day. He said there are a lot of times during the day when the labs are empty, but the computers run regardless, gobbling up energy, and thus wasting coal. “We have to cut demand before we can reduce our fuel use,” Link said.
Link is not alone in thinking that the best way to lower emissions is to reduce demand. Bob Ellerhorst, the director of the Simon power plant, sits on the committee for a sustainable campus along with Link. Ellerhorst said that the plant is doing all it can to keep emissions low, while still producing enough power to keep the campus going.
Because the campus boilers are used for both heat and power, the plant is able to double its efficiency, unlike most of the combustion (for power use)-only stations used to provide most of the power to the grid. Ellerhorst said that the typical combustion-only boiler produces electricity at around 33 percent efficiency. With the co-generative capabilities of their boilers, the campus plant produces electricity at around 70 percent efficiency.
Ellerhorst said he also believes the power plant staff is just as concerned about the environment as anyone else. The power plant tests its stack emissions regularly, reporting their findings to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “The permit requires us to have continuous emission monitoring,” Ellerhorst said.
There are many other ways the plant works to provide energy at the lowest risk to the environment. Currently, 100 percent of the coal ash produced in the combustion process is recycled. This ash is then reused in the creation of cement or fertilizer, depending on its pH level. The plant also introduces a limestone mix into the coal that absorbs excess amounts of the sulfur that would otherwise become an airborne pollutant. The process is called Best Available Control Technology, or BACT. “We lose a little bit of the boilers heat efficiency, but the environmental efficiency goes way up,” Ellerhorst said.
According to Ellerhorst, the university has looked into switching over to natural gas, but so far the process has been cost prohibitive. At the current cost for natural gas, it would cost the university twice as much to supply the power they do now. The only way to recoup such a loss would be to increase tuition. Due to increasing demand, the power plant is installing an additional boiler right now to be run only on natural gas.
Ellerhorst and the rest of the power plant staff are not opposed to looking into alternative energy forms. He worked with the committee on campus sustainability to determine the feasibility of wind power on campus. Unfortunately, the study found that East Lansing does not have a stable enough wind pattern to make such a venture worthwhile. On his own, Ellerhorst has been looking into bio-mass energy as an alternative fuel. Bio-mass uses any type of organic waste and utilizes its carbon content as a fuel source. “It is still too early to tell if it will be something we can use effectively,” Ellerhorst said.[eco]
The quest to introduce alternative energy to campus does not end with the power plant staff or the office of sustainability. Many student groups on campus are concerned with ensuring the future health of the environment on campus and in the greater-Lansing community. One such organization actively working to create awareness of the issue is ECO, an MSU student environmental group. ECO has put together forum discussions and made presentations to the Board of Trustees.
The group’s latest struggle has been trying to get a renewable energy tax approved by the campus community. The tax would levy a $5 per semester fee to students, with the proceeds going towards renewable energy research and implementation. The tax would be waived for students not interested in participating. The group held a vote on campus in which 15 percent of the student body gave their opinion. At that time, the proposal passed by a 70-percent margin. However, a clause in the university handbook requires any vote by the student body get a 50 percent participation rate to be considered legitimate. “You can’t get 50 percent of the population out to vote in a national election,” English senior and ECO member Chelsea McMellen said. “It is an unreasonable restriction.”
McMellen is also the undergrad representative to the committee of campus sustainability. She thinks the clause is detrimental to any organization on campus that wants to work for positive change. For the last two years ECO has also worked on getting the handbook changed.
McMellen said that ECO’s stance on the power plant is complicated. They appreciate the power plant staffs’ commitment to fostering sustainability, especially Ellerhorst’s contributions, but they feel the future is in renewable energy, and the university needs to take steps in that direction. “It’s a coal burning power plant; it does pollute,” McMellen said.
ECO hopes to create greater awareness of the energy source on campus so students realize where the power they use everyday comes from. McMellen invites any student with a passion for the environment to get involved. Student groups are always looking for more members, she said. For students who feel their time is too constrained as is, there is still one important thing anyone can do to help. “People have to remember to turn stuff off when they’re not using it,” McMellen said. “Everyone seems to only concentrate on the recycling aspect of environmentalism, [but] reducing your consumption helps to eliminate a lot of the problem before it happens.”
She said she hopes the residence halls will institute community standards to shut off lights when not in use, especially shower lights, something she has noticed are almost always on unnecessarily. These kinds of standards can only benefit the students in the residence halls, because though they never see the electric bill, the halls are charged for the electricity they use. When the amount goes up, students’ room and board rates goup, too.
With over a million pounds of coal burning up the stacks at the Simon power plant everyday, it is important for students to realize the effects of their electrical consumption. Anyone can make a difference just by shutting down appliances when not in use. For example, students don’t need to leave computers running all day and night. So what if you can’t receive AIM messages at all hours? A step like this might seem small, but if all students on campus simply shut down their computer while they sleep, think about how much energy would be saved.
And, who knows, maybe tuition could even go down.

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