Coal no more: SDSU demolishes remnants of campus coal use


Going… Going… Gone. Campus is saying a mighty farewell to its years of coal burning, which ended in 2012.

Over Winter Break, contractors began working with Facilities and Services to demolish the two coal silos between the Central Heating Plant as well as the Avera Health and Science building. It’s a tedious task requiring the contractor to collapse the silos inside themselves — a process that can take nearly three weeks. 

During its coal burning years, South Dakota State University purchased up to 8,000 tons of coal each year. Each silo stored 350 tons of coal, which is enough energy to provide extra heating during a cold week in Brookings. In 2012, when campus was due to replace two of its boilers, SDSU made the switch to natural gas.

While the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal plant regulations didn’t affect South Dakota at the time, SDSU still decided to move forward and end their coal usage in preparation for potentially more stringent guidelines. In addition, the price of natural gas and the want to reduce campus’ carbon footprint played a role in the decision.

The process for using coal and natural gas for heat is almost identical, but the move to natural gas has saved time spent hauling coal and removing coal ash waste. SDSU’s coal was barged from the Appalachian region to Minneapolis, then trucked to Brookings. Next, dump truck loads would haul the coal to the silos, where it was brought into the heating plant through a series of conveyor belts. Coal ash leftover from burning was then hauled out to the Brookings landfill. 

Instead, natural gas is brought directly to the heating plant through pipes connected to campus’ natural gas provider. This alone improves campus efficiency and saves man-hours.

In addition, natural gas burns about half the amount of carbon dioxide of coal; however, according to Sarah Zielinski in her article “Natural Gas Really Is Better Than Coal,” it is still a fossil fuel and is not exempt from negative climate effects. To many, natural gas is considered a “bridge fuel,” according to Zielinski, explaining that it’s a small step in the right direction toward renewable energy.

While renewable energy is not in SDSU’s foreseeable future, staff members in Facilities and Services work hard to maximize energy efficiencies and minimize energy loss. In fact, the energy conservation efforts start right in the heating plant. As steam is generated, the flue gas is discharged outside; however, prior to doing so, the flue gas’ heat is transferred to new water entering the boiler. 

This helps reduce the amount of energy needed to heat the water to generate steam. Other areas that have helped conserve energy include more efficient buildings as well as increased steam pipe insulation. Through the energy conservation efforts, the heating energy consumption on campus has remained relatively the same, if not declined, despite adding more building square footage to campus.

Coal is gone and natural gas is in. But one thing won’t change: energy conservation will remain important to campus no matter the energy source used.


Jennifer McLaughlin is the sustainability specialist at SDSU and can be reached at [email protected]