Beyond Coal: Missing a bigger picture?


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The Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign has accelerated its effort at the University of Iowa by advocating the university to stop burning coal in its district combined heat and Power Plant. This worthwhile effort deserves support — but falls short of addressing issues of sustainability, economics, and security of UI's fuel supply.

The UI utility supports Iowa's largest medical facility, an extensive research infrastructure, classroom and administrative buildings, and housing for thousands of students. Without steam produced in the central plant, these functions cannot operate normally. Failure of the steam supply could threaten life safety in extreme winter cold or sever summer heat conditions. Two solid-fuel boilers at the plant produce more than 80 percent of the steam.

Since 2003 UI has co-fired biomass fuel (oat hulls) in one of the two boilers and experimented with test burns of fuels in both boilers. Power Plant staff and management are strongly committed to find ways to reduce coal consumption by using alternate fuels, such as biomass and organic industrial byproducts.

To stop burning coal is relatively easy — just convert to natural gas. However, natural gas remains a fossil fuel, has a history of volatile price swings, is dependent on reserves accessible only with questionable recovery techniques, and is subject to supply interruptions from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. While we have significant natural-gas steam production capacity, it remains a peaking and backup fuel on our main campus.

We are actively working to convert from coal to biorenewable energy produced and procured locally (50 to 75 miles from Iowa City). Rather than buying all our coal and all our natural gas from sources outside Iowa, we want to spend that money locally — more than $14 million per year.

Iowa is a great place to grow things — why not solid biorenewable fuel? It can be done in a manner that improves environmental performance of Iowa lands, does not interfere with row crop (corn and beans) production, improves soil water and air quality, and is good for plants and animals.

This is not a small task. We know we will need more than 100,000 tons per year of dry woody biomass to meet our 2020 goal of 40-percent renewable. This quantity of biomass actually replaces more than 60 percent of our current coal use. It will take time and money to develop this renewable fuel supply.

I would encourage all who support Beyond Coal to fully understand and consider the bigger picture. Let's use this opportunity to put the UI into the forefront of converting from coal to solid biomass fuels and serve as an example to others working the same issues.

Ferman Milster is the associate director of UI Facilities Management's utilities and energy.

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