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Big Ten ‘mini cities’ create big impact

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Collectively larger than the population of Miami, the Big Ten Conference demands a huge amount of electricity. The fuel used, where it comes from and how it’s burned contribute to efficiency.

By Matthew Hund, Kristin V. Johnson, & Hannah Northey
Spring 2007
Ninety-one percent of energy in the United States is produced from non-renewable sources that pollute the environment. As these sources of energy diminish, society turns its attention to the country’s centers of intelligence, free thought and creativity for leadership — universities in the Big Ten Conference.
In Spring 2006, Big Ten universities compiled their 17th annual report on energy production and consumption. The collaboration is a result of the “Big Ten and Friends” engineering meeting, initiated in the 1960s by the University of Illinois to provide an opportunity for university power plant managers to train on new systems and exchange information.
The report, although complicated by the passage of time and the introduction of new technologies and policies, provides an invaluable look at how Big Ten universities measure up in terms of the energy they use, how much they produce and consume and how their future is shaping up.
Energy Demand
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) refers to university campuses as “mini cities.” But “mini” might be an understatement, since the combined student population of the 11 schools in the Big Ten conference is larger than the population of Miami. That doesn’t even include faculty and staff.
Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 2.24.37 AMAnd according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment is increasing on college campuses nationwide — by approximately 25 percent between 1990 and 2004.
With larger student bodies demanding even more energy-intensive services, such as air conditioning and personal computers, university campuses put increasing demands on local utilities and on-campus power plants — and they also spend more on their power bills. For some schools, the economic solution lies in burning cheaper fuels or buying energy from a grid that may or may not produce responsibly.
On average, each Big Ten university consumes more than 18 kilowatt-hours per gross square foot — that’s the area inside buildings — each year.
According to pollution calculators, which approximate the pollution produced by kilowatt-hours generated by specific types of fuel, that much energy has the potential to create more than 4,700 tons of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and more than 8 million tons of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global climate change.
Ohio State University was the largest consumer of energy in 2005, using 24.1 kilowatt-hours per gross square foot. The high usage could be because OSU has the second largest “electrified area” in the Big Ten. The electrified area encompasses all parts of campus that require electricity, such as lit parking lots, classrooms and
laboratories. According to Ohio State’s Web site, it is also the largest public research institution in the United States.
Michigan State University’s campus, on the other hand, consumed the smallest amount of energy in 2005-06, using 12.6 kilowatt hours per gross square foot. Although MSU has the fourth largest electrified area in the Big Ten, it also has numerous energy conservation programs.
For example, MSU has:
* A worm composting program run by a student-run group called MACgreen,
* A green roof experiment to save on the heating and cooling of buildings, and
* A campus-wide energy campaign, launched in 2001, that promotes energy conservation at all university buildings and dorms.
Fuel types
Universities vary in the energy they use. The source is based on cost and the availability of fuel types and plant machinery. In the Big Ten, fuel sources are as diverse as coal, natural gas, recycled tires and biomass.
Fuel sources are measured by the amount of energy released as heat when they burn. The heat value is measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs), the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. One BTU is the amount of energy released as heat by striking a match.
* Coal
Coal is a plentiful, yet controversial, energy source. While 1 ton of coal provides about 20 million BTUs, burning this fuel also produces gases that contribute to respiratory problems, climate change, smog and mercury build-up in aquatic food chains.
The MSU power plant is the largest user of coal in the Big Ten, although the MSU campus consumed the smallest amount of energy: 5,387 kilowatt-hours per student and 12.61 kilowatt-hours per gross square foot.
Photo courtesy of Madison Hall
Jonathan Cogan, an energy information specialist at the DOE, said burning coal emits more carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide than petroleum or natural gas.
The largest consumer of coal in the Big Ten was Michigan State University, having used more than 6 trillion tons of coal in 2004-05 alone. Bob Ellerhorst, the power plant manager at MSU, said the university uses coal because it’s the cheapest form of fuel.
But the university is able to emit less sulfur and fewer noxious gases because of specialized machinery called a fluidized bed. Purdue and Iowa State also have this technology, Ellerhorst said.
Sulfur must also be controlled by MSU to meet state air quality requirements. MSU ships its coal from eastern Kentucky, where low-sulfur coal is mined.
According to Ellerhorst, MSU is one of the Big Ten schools farthest from the southern coal mines and therefore pays the most for coal shipping costs.
* Natural Gas
The University of Michigan is the Big Ten’s largest consumer of natural gas, using 4 trillion BTUs in 2004-05, according to the Big Ten survey.
Natural gas, formed when organic materials trapped in sediments decompose, is an increasingly attractive source of energy that emits less carbon and nitrogen than coal or oil. It has almost no ash particles left after burning and emits no sulfur, according to the DOE’s Cogan.
On the other hand, burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide and is made up of mostly methane — two substances that contribute to global climate change. Natural gas is also more difficult to transport —
especially in colder climates like Michigan’s — and therefore more expensive.
“Many, many years ago, people at this university recognized that coal was not a sustainable fuel,” said Diane Brown of U-M media relations. “It’s an efficient power plant that co-generates electricity on the side after it generates the steam.”
Co-generation is a process that creates two sources of energy from one natural resource — steam to heat buildings and electricity to power them.
* Oil
The University of Minnesota, with campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, is the largest consumer of oil in the Big Ten, having used 91.7 billion BTUs in 2004-05.
Power plants can burn the oil in boilers to produce steam and turn a turbine, burn the oil in combustion turbines or use the hot exhaust to make steam to drive a steam turbine.
But the school’s main source of energy is natural gas, according to Jerome Malmquist, director of energy management at the University of Minnesota. Oil is only used as a supplementary source in the coldest months of the year, when natural gas becomes more difficult to transport.
Minnesota law prevents the university from using coal to produce more than 30 percent of its annual energy.
Burning oil at power plants produces nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and mercury compounds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the DOE’s Fred Mayes, oil’s high cost and pollution concerns make it an undesirable energy source.
* Biomass
The University of Iowa leads the Big Ten in the use of biomass — biological material used as fuel or for industrial production. For the third year in a row, the university is purchasing oatmeal hull from the Quaker Oats Company to use in one of its two coal-burning boilers. The oat hulls, which cost half as much as coal, are burned instead of coal.
The use of biomass has had positive financial and environmental effects, said Ferman Milster, associate director of Utilities and Energy Management.
“We’ve saved a quarter of a million to one million dollars a year, and we’re not increasing the global inventory of CO2,” Milster said. “It provides the university with a local business partnership where we’re both benefiting — Quaker gets money for oat hulls, and we get a source of fuel.”
Milster said the university spent two years developing, testing and getting permits for the separate fuel system added to the boiler for the purpose of burning hulls.
Since its installment, emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter have decreased. Additionally, Milster said the university is in the process of adding the hull-burning fuel system to its second boiler.
Currently, energy generated from the burning of oat hulls accounts for 13 percent of University of Iowa’s total purchased energy.
The grid
Comparing Big Ten schools on the basis of energy use comes with many caveats. Each school is unique and has different programs to achieve maximum efficiency.
One such caveat is that some universities have their own power plants. These schools, unlike those that purchase energy from outside companies, have the power to implement programs that control pollution and the university’s carbon footprint.
Some schools are signing up to take part in the Chicago Climate Exchange, the world’s first legally binding greenhouse gases registry, reduction and trading system. Members make a voluntary but legally binding commitment to reduce their production of greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent each year.
Member universities include Tufts University, Michigan State University and the universities of Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota. Businesses that are members include Ford Motor Co., IBM, Motorola, non-governmental organizations and even cities.
Universities that buy their energy from outside sources, however, cannot vouch for how it is produced.
But there are many other caveats to how each Big Ten school — indeed, each university in the world — makes its energy decisions, ranging from differences in power plant machinery and available funding to proximity to natural resources and the existence of high-consumption buildings like hospitals and large laboratories. These variables leave moot any ranking of university energy efficiency, but they don’t negate the importance of questioning the manner in which these “mini cities” power their campuses — the very places where cutting-edge research on energy efficiency occurs.
Matthew Hund is a first-year graduate student in the environmental journalism program at MSU. This is his second appearance in EJ. Contact Matthew at hundmatt@msu.edu.
Kristin V. Johnson is EJ’s design editor and a second-year master’s student in MSU’s environmental journalism program. This is her third appearance as a writer and her fourth issue as designer. Contact Kristin at john2469@msu.edu.
Hannah Northey is EJ’s special project editor and a second-year master’s student in the environmental journalism program at MSU. This is her third appearance as a writer and her first issue as special project editor. Contact Hannah at hnorthey@gmail.com.
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