Vanderbilt makes switch from coal power to natural gas

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt University will replace its coal-fired co-generation facility, converting it to burn natural gas to meet the power needs of the university and medical center. The university’s Board of Trust voted to approve the project April 19 during its annual spring meeting.

Currently, coal produces about 210,000 pounds of steam and 11 megawatts of electrical power at the university’s power plant. A natural gas boiler installed in 2002 has the capability to produce the remainder of the plant’s power, about 200,000 pounds of steam and 10 megawatts of electrical power.

“The use and design of Vanderbilt’s places, spaces and resources tells not only our history, but often the history of our nation,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. “The decision to convert this facility to natural gas reflects the priority we place on conserving our environment and energy. [rquote]The overall welfare and future of our community are very important, and responsible stewardship of our environmental resources is a lodestar in ensuring those efforts.”[/rquote]

The conversion from coal to natural gas is expected to cost around $29 million and will be funded by university investment. Construction of the new natural gas facility will last approximately two years and include the installation of two natural gas-fired boilers and one natural gas-combustion turbine, which will co-generate steam and electricity. All of the coal infrastructure also will be removed, including the three-story bag house, which serves as a filtering system, and the smoke stack, coal hoppers and coal silo.

The project is expected to get underway in fall 2013. There are no plans for disruptions to the campus power supply during construction.

“The conversion of the coal facility is consistent with the university’s increasing commitment to sustainability efforts across campus—from construction and dining to recycling and transportation,” Jerry Fife, Vanderbilt vice chancellor for administration, said. “Although the facility contributes to the reduction of our carbon footprint by co-generating electricity, steam and chilled water on site, the switch to operating solely on natural gas will go a long way toward achieving our environmental goals.

“[lquote]The conversion will also eliminate the daily traffic of large trucks transporting coal to the plant that sits near the busy center of campus,” Fife said.[/lquote]

Economic factors also played a role in the university’s decision, such as natural gas supply and storage being at record levels resulting in lower and stable prices, increasing electrical costs, and escalating maintenance costs for the aging plant.

Vanderbilt has been producing steam and electricity to power campus and medical center buildings for more than 100 years. The power plant and its hub of underground networks began in their current location in 1923 and were expanded in 1964, 1980 and 1986 to add capacity and improve operations. In 1992, the current chiller plant was added to provide cost-effective air conditioning for campus buildings.

During all of these improvements, the primary fuel was coal, with fuel oil and natural gas as backup fuels. At the time, coal was approximately one-third the cost of natural gas and was being used by the vast majority of utility producers across the country. In 2002, the university installed its first all-natural-gas boiler component, which virtually doubled the capacity of the plant.