Physical plant cleans up with natural gas

Nick Lowrey


SDSU is taking advantage of low natural gas prices and making the switch to a cleaner fuel.

The SDSU physical plant that heats campus should finish burning its coal pile and start burning gas in the coming months, allowing the physical plant to burn the lower carbon emission fuel: natural gas.

SDSU will buy its gas from Cornerstone Energy under a state contract. The plant’s boilers are able to burn either fuel source but until recently, gas was too expensive to justify.

“We can’t arbitrarily make decisions that are good for the environment but would create a financial hardship for the university,” said Lynne Finn, assistant director for facilities and services.

Over the last few years, natural gas prices have fallen dramatically due to increased production and the development of more efficient recovery methods. Coal, on the other hand, has increased in price because of rising demand in countries like China — allowing the plant to make the switch to the cleaner fuel.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the price of coal has been rising steadily for the last 10 years. Coal consumption, meanwhile, with the rise of alternative methods of power generation, has fallen in the U.S. However, prices could see a fall in the next few years, which could in turn lead the physical plant to return to coal. There are currently no plans to do so, but because of the possibility the plant will not remove any of its coal handling equipment.

“We want to stay as agile as possible,” Finn said.

Environmental groups consider coal the dirtiest fossil fuel because of the carbon, sulfur and various other pollutants that burning coal puts into the atmosphere. Gas, however, emits far fewer pollutants when burned and has gained favor among environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

“All things being equal, we choose natural gas,” Finn said.

Natural gas is not without controversy. Recently, producers have come under fire for practicing hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The mining technique involves shooting water and chemicals into the ground to help break apart rock containing gas. Opposition groups like Food and Water Watch say the chemicals can have a negative effect on ground water.

The physical plant is used to heat most buildings on campus. The plant burns fuel to heat water into steam, which is then piped to a building’s heat exchanger that heats glycol. The glycol is then piped to radiators, heating rooms and hallways.

Finn said gas has other advantages over coal. The first and most important is that natural gas is transported by pipeline which makes transportation much cheaper. When SDSU buys coal it must be carried by river barge and truck to Brookings from the Appalachian region. The physical plant operates under title five of the Clean Air Act and cannot use coal from western sates like Wyoming, which is considered to be dirtier than eastern coal.

The move to natural gas is just one example of the SDSU facilities and services department’s efforts to keep energy costs lower and environmentally friendly. According to Kattelmann, the new buildings on campus have been built to the LEED Silver standard of “green” construction. Future projects will also be built to the same standard.

Kattelmann also noted university policy says all appliances brought on to campus are supposed to be energy star rated, though that is easier said than done.

“The biggest thing is getting people to take ownership (of their energy consumption),” Kattelmann said.

Despite the massive increase of square footage in recent years, — around 400,000 sq. ft. between 2009 and 2011 — and a significant increase in the size of the student body, the cost of energy has decreased per square foot. The price is now just $1.68 per square foot and utility costs are $401.12 per full time student a year. Other universities with the same type of buildings and research operations range on average between $600 and $700 per student.

“Gross square footage went up but costs have leveled,” Kattelmann said. “We’d still use less if we’d get people to buy in.”

Finn said facilities and services’ goal is to keep things working without disrupting anything else happening around campus.

“We want to operate behind the scenes without anybody noticing,” she said.