For the next five months, Ohio University’s Lausche Heating Plant will operate entirely on natural gas, backing out the use of coal during that period, the university said April 12.
“Director of Energy Management Tim Strissel identified an opportunity to purchase blocks of gas, known as hedging. We can guarantee the price for 55 percent of our gas needs and purchase the rest on the open market as needed during the summer,” said Mike Gebeke, executive director of facilities management. “It is anticipated that the cost during the summer will be lower than the ‘hedged’ amount. This led to the idea that we could burn gas to power the plant over the summer for less than the cost of burning coal. This is the first time in the history of Lausche that this has been possible.”
This coal-to-gas conversion will not only save money, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Gebeke said. These five months will also serve as a pilot for the university’s eventual full conversion to natural gas, estimated to happen in 2015.
Ohio University has always burned natural gas, but according to Strissel, it only accounted for approximately 15% of the fuel used. As a result, the natural gas boilers were not being used at full efficiency.
This is not only a test for the entire Athens campus steam system but for the university’s two natural gas boilers. If they perform well during the test, they will not need to be replaced during the heating plant’s full conversion to natural gas in later years. If the five months are determined to be a success and natural gas prices remain low, the university may extend the test by two months.
This coal-to-gas conversion is not unusual, since the Sierra Club has had success in recent years through its Beyond Coal campaign in getting universities and colleges nationwide to back away from coal for campus facilities. But the Ohio University plan is especially disheartening for the coal industry since the university is near the heart of the southeast Ohio coal industry.
University officials had said in March 2011 that they planned to meet with representatives of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, to discuss claims that the Lausche Heating Plant is in violation of the Clean Air Act.