ISU to eliminate coal usage on campus, and cut a biorenewables graduate program

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Iowa State University plans to end two things when it comes to the study or use of energy, but one loss — eliminating the use of coal on campus — would be considered a good thing, from the university's perspective.

Pam Cain, ISU's senior vice president for operations and finance, told the Iowa Board of Regents' Property and Facilities Committee on Wednesday that the university wants to spend $16 million to replace the two remaining coal-fired boilers at the university power plant with natural gas-fired boilers.

The university completed a $42 million conversion project in 2016 that replaced three of the five coal-fired boilers with ones fueled by natural gas, and received consent approval from the committee Wednesday for the last two boilers.

Burning less coal means fewer emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, as well as less release of particulate matter.

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Natural gas is also a fossil fuel that releases greenhouse gases during combustion, but converting the last two boilers would reduce the university's greenhouse gas emissions by 35%, according to a strategic plan that ISU President Wendy Wintersteen endorsed last year to guide environmental sustainability at the university through 2025.

Being carbon neutral is a longer-term priority of the university, with carbon dioxide being the most-emitted greenhouse gas in the United States.

Cain said the goal is to have the boiler conversion project done by 2025.

She said while coal has been a cheap source of energy in some aspects, it has been costly for maintenance and has costs associated with the ash produced, and getting rid of it will also eliminate the need for two coal storage sites located near the power plant.

Of the $16 million cost to convert the last two 32-year-old boilers, $9 million would be internal university funds to be generated by $3.9 million in annual cost savings at the plant achieved by the switch. 

"While there is always a risk of changes in energy prices, that risk can be mitigated by extending the current university program of natural gas hedging," according to documents presented Wednesday to the Regents' committee.

The other $7 million would come from university utility funds.

Construction would be scheduled for January 2022 to June 2023.

Graduate program in biorenewables desired to be cut

ISU's Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert, meanwhile, told the Regents' Academic Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the university wants to cut a graduate program in biorenewable resources and technology.

The program did not have any faculty or staff solely dedicated to it, Wickert said.

The interdepartmental program offered master's, doctorate and a doctorate minor degrees. 

Wickert said the program was started and designed to offer advanced study opportunities in the use of plant-based fuels, chemicals and other products, but students have preferred to major in other programs over the specialized biorenewables program.

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According to documents presented Wednesday, "Because of lack of demand, no new students have been admitted in the last three years. The few students remaining are sufficiently far along in their programs that no special accommodation will be required to complete their graduation requirements."

As of last year, only one student was enrolled in the program. Included records went back to 2016, when five students had applied for the program and three were enrolled. 

The program also never received any direct funding to support students or instructors, or to administer the program.

The committee recommended approval of the request to terminate the program.

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Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.