UI continues sustainability push with new biomass boiler


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University of Iowa officials are testing a new renewable energy source they hope could make the campus more green, but environmental advocates on campus say the move might not be enough.

The university's Oakdale Campus — located northwest of Iowa City — will soon start using a $7.3 million biomass boiler that will replace a gas-powered boiler. The new boiler burns woodchips.


"We are taking the new boiler as an opportunity to update our infrastructure here at the Oakdale Campus," said Steve Kottenstette, the manager of the Oakdale Renewable Energy Power Plant. "We are able to try out new technology on a smaller scale at the Oakdale Campus, and if successful, we take those technologies down to the main campus."

However, Zach Carter — who founded the UI student chapter of environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club — said the university still has room to improve its renewable resource plans, as there is not enough biomass available to replace coal.

"If biomass is a 'steppingstone,' then what is the next step?" he wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. "The UI Vision 2020 mentions, in a token fashion, geothermal, wind, and solar options, but where are they? A major, major step to aspire would be for the UI to become coal-free, but that's not on the table yet. We seek a commitment from the UI to go coal-free."

Sierra Student Coalition member Carl Saxon said he appreciates the UI's sustainability efforts, but he also believes the school can focus on other energy-saving issues.

"There are still issues that we need to work on," he said. "We need to lower the carbon footprint by turning off lights in buildings when they aren't being used and turning down temperatures of air conditioners in buildings around campus."

The Oakdale Power Plant began looking into more energy-efficient designs in 2009 to support resource-demanding buildings such as the UI Data Center and the UI State Hygienic Lab. Though the UI is moving toward more renewable energy sources, Ferman Milster, the associate director of utilities & energy management for Facilities Management, said gas use will most likely never stop at the plant.

"We'll probably always have gas as a peaking and backup fuel," he said. "We will never rely on just one source of energy, but we are hoping to install more biomass equipment out there."

Kottenstette and Milster both said the amount of money the new boiler will save depends heavily on the price of gas.

UI engineers are surveying nearby land to expand the power plant's biomass fuels beyond woodchips alone. Current fuels consist of expired corn seed, with future plans to use expired seed plating and mixes of woodchips, corn, and soybeans.

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