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Miami puts $17 million toward university coal plant renovations

Roger Sauerhaft

Construction began behind Miami University's Peabody Hall this fall to comply with tightening emissions legislation being handed down by the federal government.

Miami's only steam plant, located behind Peabody Hall on Western campus, supplies Miami with all of its steam through burning coal and is currently undergoing about $17 million in upgrades, according to University Engineer Paul Wenner.

He said about $11 million would go to upgrading the pollution control systems in compliance with a federal bill enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The rest will go to electrical upgrades to handle this new equipment such as new emergency generators.

"For the academic and administrative buildings, the funds come from many different sources including state funds to support campus operations, state subsidy, tuition, investment income, as well as many others," said Jim Haley, associate vice president of facilities at Miami, via e-mail. "There is no specific tie between the utility costs and the source of money to cover those costs. For residence and dining halls, their budgets are generally supported by room and board fees."

Therefore Haley confirmed that this was one of the many factors of the rising cost of living on Miami's campus.

The equipment is being installed to help remove much of the pollution given off by the current coal furnace.

"The foundations for the equipment, they are basically baghouses and scrubbers that take a lot of the pollution out of the gas that goes out through the stack," Haley said. "There are a series of projects going on at the steam plant. We do burn coal, and there was a law that was passed and then an EPA rule that came out that caused us to have to examine the operating of the plant relative to the stack particulates and the potential pollution. We made the decision as a result of that to do an upgrade to our plant emission control system."

Haley said that after deciding to upgrade the emission control system, his department realized that the additional fans and motors called for further changes to be made in the electrical system, which further increased the cost. Putting in the emission control system without the proper electrical system to support it, would be inefficient, according to Haley.

"It got to the point where we realized that the amount of money that we were going to spend making the changes was effectively not an efficient use of the money," Haley explained. "Many other aspects of the plant electrical system needed to be upgraded because it was old, so the more appropriate thing was to modify and upgrade the whole steam plant electric system. That was a $4 to $4.5 million project to do that. It included upgrading the emergency generators at the steam plant as well."

After tighter standards had been imposed by the EPA and the federal government, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA "vacate the national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants" in many different areas, including process heaters, which is where it applies to Miami, according to Trinity

Consultants Missouri News. The reason, according to the article in June 2007, had to do with the bill being inconsistent with the Clean Air Act. Thus, the mandate from the EPA that Miami sought to comply with when starting this project is now nullified, although Haley and Wenner expect it to return.

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"The electric systems upgrade needs to be done regardless of the pollution rules," Haley said. "Secondly, we need to upgrade our pollution control equipment anyway. The system we currently have operates at the current EPA emissions limits and is subject to failure at any time. What the rules did was give us parameters around which to design the upgrade. We would be investing in this type equipment anyway. The risk, however, is that new rules developed in the future could require even more stringent pollution control, at a level that could not be foreseen in 2005-06. To lessen the risk, we chose to design the system that we are installing to go beyond just the minimums in the rules. Hopefully any new limits that might be developed will be within the capability of the system we are installing."

Apart from cleaning pollution, the new equipment offers many other benefits to Miami as well.

"What we're doing has a function similar to a catalytic converted on a car," Haley said. "We bought and installed two natural gas Peking engines and we generate over 11 megawatts of electricity during the time of the year when the price of electricity is very expensive. This can help during blackouts and it can also keep costs down. By doing this we can avoid blackouts and also, by paying the higher price for electricity, we would be funding the power companies to build more coal plants, and these are the subject of a lot of environmental concerns."

Wenner conceded that although not many universities burned coal, and that the natural gas that some universities use now is more environmentally friendly than coal even with the new upgrades, Miami still chooses to burn coal because it is less expensive.

"In the end you have to look at the economics of things, were trying to keep our expenses down like anybody else so you don't have to end up with big tuition increases," Wenner said.

Wenner also said that Miami had been talking to a company called N-Viro, which can take ash from burnt coal and mix it with sludge to form a fertilizer for farmers as a way of recycling waste, although no plans are set yet. This was one possibility that could tie in recycling with Miami's coal burning in the future.