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Home Planning, Design & Construction Penn State's Switch from Coal to Natural Gas

Penn State's Switch from Coal to Natural Gas

Why is Penn State converting its coal-powered steam plant to natural gas?

Penn State University is switching from coal to natural gas to come into compliance with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency Industrial Boiler MACT law published in January 2013.

Penn State’s University Park campus uses steam for heating, cooling, cooking, lab work and laundry in more than 200 buildings. Steam is distributed to buildings via a network of 17 miles of underground piping. University Park has a West Campus Steam Plant (WCSP), built in 1929, that provides primary steam production. Its East Campus Steam Plant (ECSP), built in 1972, serves peak steam demands. 

The University is now upgrading and improving the efficiency of its steam system. After analyzing a range of alternatives, Penn State plans to convert the WCSP’s coal-fired systems to burn natural gas.


What are the advantages of using natural gas instead of coal?

  • Environment—Using natural gas reduces emissions by nearly 50% over coal, including the production of greenhouse gases, which contain dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (see the benefits of switching to natural gas below)
  • Regulations—The University is ensuring compliance with federal clean-air regulations
  • Cost—Both the mechanical upgrades and projected fuel costs for natural gas are lower in cost than continuing to burn coal
  • Future Enhancements—Switching now will allow for future, higher-efficiency co-generation—which means even cleaner air in the community.
  • Safety—Switching to natural gas will eliminate the need for coal deliveries and heavy truck traffic. Currently, more than 15 to 21 coal trucks a day travel our streets.


What are the environmental and health benefits of switching to natural gas?

There are environmental benefits to switching to natural gas, as well as challenges. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, burning natural gas generates significantly fewer emissions of carbon dioxide, and nearly all types of air pollutants, than coal. The University estimates a 47 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from its steam plants by switching to natural gas, which will improve air quality both on the University Park campus and in State College Borough. This reduction of 99,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide is an amount equal to the annual emissions of 12,400 cars or 5,500 average U.S. homes.

However, natural gas brings with it environmental challenges that Penn State will work with partners inside and outside the University to minimize. The exploration, extraction, processing and distribution of natural gas have impacts on the environment. Researchers across the University continue to work to address the complete range of issues presented by the large natural gas play in Pennsylvania.


What about using renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind or geothermal systems?

The use of natural gas in Penn State's combined heat and power system that supplies the University's resilient microgrid is a highly efficient low-carbon solution that is considered environmentally friendly by all major environmental groups, including Sierra Club, Green Peace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. This system is in place and merely requires upgrading to continue to serve the University safely, reliably and efficiently.

Energy strategies for University Park have been re-visited and re-adjusted many times over the years. Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant has hired consultants, worked with faculty researchers and conducted its own assessments on a variety of renewable energy sources to determine how they might be used in University Park’s energy portfolio. Within the last five years, the University once again re-analyzed its potential energy sources such as solar, bio-energy, wind, geothermal, different forms of energy storage technologies, and more.

Solar and wind energy are well-suited for providing electricity. However, the University’s massive central-heating system uses steam, not electricity, and currently requires the burning of fuel. Multiple fuel sources were considered, including the continued use of coal and geothermal systems, but none proved viable when evaluated against factors including feasibility, reliability, risk, cost and environmental impact. For now, the switch to natural gas is considered transitional, while we wait for renewable technologies to mature and for alternative solutions to prove scalable for a University the size of Penn State.


How does Penn State get the new gas it needs?

To accommodate the increase in natural gas demand, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania upgraded its natural gas service to the plant. It installed a new gas line across the University Park campus. 


What type of pipeline was installed?

Columbia installed 2.2 miles of 12-inch steel pipe with 0.375-inch walls and a protective coating. The pipeline has a test capacity of 52,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, but the actual pressure will be a fraction of that at 400 pounds per square inch. The special coating on the pipe provides maximum corrosion protection in harsh environments. The unique chemical characteristics of these coatings are specifically engineered to protect against a wide variety of elements.


Is this a new type of pipeline?

This type of line is not new. Columbia safely operates more than 174 miles of pipe in Pennsylvania at this pressure, even in urban areas. Columbia operates more than 47 miles of gas pipeline in the State College Borough alone.


Besides greenhouse gas reduction, are there any other benefits for local residents?

A common misconception is that the coal currently being used only comes from Pennsylvania. Coal types vary greatly, and most of the specific coal needed for the University’s plant is delivered from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Currently, the WCSP receives 15 to 21 coal truck deliveries per day. The switch to natural gas will greatly reduce truck traffic and diesel fuel emissions, making streets safer and air cleaner.


What about the future? Is Penn State investing in energy conservation and efficiency in order to reduce the amount of overall energy that it needs?

The switch from coal to natural gas and upgrades to both East and West Campus Steam Plants will improve on Penn State's already highly efficient District Energy System. In 2011 PSU's system operated at 72%. When completed, Penn State's system will operate at better than 80%--more than two times the efficiency of the electric grid.

In addition, the University has invested around $10 million annually in Penn State energy conservation efforts for more than 8 years, which has led to an overall 10 percent reduction in energy use. The University has actually dropped its energy usage to 2003 levels, despite the fact that during that same time period the University added more than 1 million square feet of building space. This investment in energy efficiency will continue and is now complemented by programs to educate and engage employees and students in the responsible use of resources.