Students tour 1 of UK’s coal-fired steam plants

Tom Whitaker, senior supervisor at the coal powered plant on the University of Kentucky campus, gave a tour to students on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. Photo by Latara Appleby | Staff

By Rachel Aretakis

One of the university’s two coal-fired steam plants opened its doors to UK students for a look inside how campus is heated.

More than 45 people toured the main campus plant Wednesday afternoon, organized by the Kentucky Energy Club.

The plant, located between South Limestone and South Upper Street, supplies all the steam for campus, said Tom Whitaker, a plant senior supervisor.

The 75,000-pound coal-fired boilers provide heat and/or hot water for campus buildings, he said.

UK’s chapter of the Kentucky Energy Club opened the tour to all students to show how the plant works.

“Energy power has never been taught,” Evan Schroader, the club’s president, said. “The energy IQ is generally low. We want to educate people because it’s never been taught.”

While students often pass the plant (which is near the Taylor Education Building and just down the street from Jamba Juice), many have never been inside, besides for class.

Todd Campbell, an operator at the plant, said in his two years working there, only engineering students have toured the plant. This was the first time he had seen an open tour to students, he said.

Touring students watched as Campbell pulled a chain down, slowly cranking an iron door open. He then grabbed a hoe and continually raked ashes out through a piping system to the ash silo.

Two times a shift, someone climbs down the narrow, industrial steps to “pull ashes.” About every four days, the ash is halled away in a truck.

Whitaker led the first group of students through the plant, which was built in 1934 and most recently renovated in 1978.

He said all of the coal comes from Perry County, Ky., and none of it is from strip mines. While many people think the plant produces electricity, it only produces steam, he said.

In response to several student questions, Whitaker discussed air pollution and steam on campus.

“We meet the (EPA) standards because you can’t see anything coming out of (the stacks),” Whitaker said.

He said he is required to go to school every six months to learn about new standards.

Among the students touring was Kristen Vinson, a journalism senior who thinks every student should go on a tour. She said she is interested in the Beyond Coal movement.

“I think (students) like coal because they think they have to,” she said, regarding the university being associated with Friends of Coal.

Groups learned the plant’s process from when the coal comes in on trucks, to when it is burned. Brock Meade, a psychology freshman, said he would characterize himself as having an anti-coal stance.

“It is nice to come in and see how the coal-fired power plant works,” he said.

He said his opinion about coal didn’t change after the tour.

Related Link: Cost of energy: UK officials discuss power plants, conservation

Club Coordinator Bree McCarney said this is the first time it has done a campus plant tour, but members have traveled to other plants throughout the state. She said she wants to make this a regular occurance.

“We’re just about education,” McCarney said. “We don’t have a political stance.”

McCarney and Schroader started the club at UK with a state grant “to elevate the energy IQ for the community,” Schroader said.

The club, which was started last year, is focused on community outreach, education and fact-based analysis, McCarney said.

“The politics behind (coal) are kind of distorted,” Schroader said. “We want to focus on facts, not politics.”

Schroader, who is a mechanical engineering senior, also works in the Center for Applied Energy Research with Jack Groppo, the club’s faculty adviser.

Groppo wanted to do the tour to “let people see how heat is generated and how campus is heated.”

“Energy affects everyone,” he said.

He said he was thrilled with the number of people who came to the tour, and hopes this sparks interest in coal issues.

“Everyone is going to form an opinion,” Groppo said. “At least form it on fact, not hearsay.”

For more information, the Kentucky Energy Club is sponsoring a panel with Bob Wiseman, UK’s vice president of facilities, and Shane Tedder, its sustainability coordinator, to discuss the plant as well as other campus energy issues.

The panel is at 7 p.m. Thursday in Student Center room 230.

MyTwoCents says:

They meet the so-called “standards” because the plant was grandfathered in. If it were to breakdown, UK would have to replace it with a more modern, up-to-date form of energy.

Friends of Clean Air. says:

Brock Meade- You are absolutely right. I have talked to many people working in and around the heating plants at UK, and the consensus is that the height of the stacks and the amount of smog generated by the plants are huge problems. The fact that the smog typically hangs low to the ground and absolutely reeks is known by all who work there and have to breathe it in. The UK employees, particularly around the S. Upper heating plant, are tired of putting their health at risk and seeing their co-workers become seriously ill after years of working near the heating plants. Yet students are being told that the smog is nothing but harmless steam, and Bob Wiseman is telling them that the air is so clean he built his house blocks away from the S. Upper plant.

These tours are nothing but propaganda to squash the rising resentment within UK and in Lexington about these heating plants and to keep a strong connection between UK and Friends of Coal’s wallet.

Friends of Clean Air. says:

A realist/UK Energy Club….

Since you appear to be one in the same, I have a very strong dialogue going with numerous people about this issue- people at the university, people within this town, and people at the state and national level who are at the forefront of this debate.

I mock some of the posts here that consistently slam those who advocate a more responsible form of energy than coal (Thelma and John are notorious for this) because the posts are often filled with misguided slander, insults, and bitterness (see Thelma’s “hot air” and “neo-Commie environmental groupie” comments and John’s moronic “move to Siberia” comment) and, frankly, do nothing but highlight the low IQ of the writer. See the post by “I support MTR.” That is the level of intelligence that is typically on the other side of this debate. It’s shockingly low and filled with misguided rage towards the environment for who knows what reason. “I support MTR” is the type that most likely dumps trash around his yard and on the streets and abuses dogs and other animals just to spite the “damn hippies.” He’s literally shitting where he eats and doesn’t even know it. THAT is who is at the forefront of the pro-coal movement in 2012.

There’s a very simple solution with respect to UK. UK could transition its plants to natural gas. Both of its coal-fired heating plants currently burn natural gas and coal, albeit at a ratio that favors coal. It would be a cost-effective and highly realistic transition if the two heating plants moved to natural gas. Natural gas is the cleanest of all fossil fuels, and can produce up to 70% lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal. Just about zero mercury is released from the burning of natural gas and virtually no sulphur dioxide or particulates are released as compared to coal. (sulphur dioxide: 1 pound per billion Btu of energy output for natural gas, 2,591 pounds per billion Btu of energy output for coal; particulates: 7 pounds per billion Btu of energy output for natural gas, 2,744 pounds per billion Btu of energy output for coal).

I support MTR says:

I wanna see facts not you damn hippies crying about speculation. I can’t stand you hippies because you defy all reason and logic. If you wanna change some something present FACTS with SOURCES. Otherwise go smoke your dope, eat your shrooms and sit in the gras. I’m going to go strip mine something call me when you have facts!

Oh and if you want to go to pre-industrial revolution africa is an option too.

A realist says:

Friends of clean air/Honestly speaking…
Since you appear to be one and the same, I would like to ask you a legitimate question: What do you propose we do to fix the problem? Rather than troll Kentucky Kernel articles, mocking people with a different opinion, spreading negativity, and not really fixing anything, propose a solution.
Unlike you, at least members of the Energy Club, who want to learn about ALL forms of electricity, are trying to understand the facts so they can provide informed, CONSTRUCTIVE solutions to the energy issues at hand. The club, which if you actually knew anything about it would cause you to revoke the statement mocking it, is comprised of students from all views and educational backgrounds on campus. It was formed to bring together individuals concerned about the issues and moving forward.
You appear to believe that using fossil fuels and loving the environment cannot coincide? What makes you think that people who have realistic views about using coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear power do not care about this earth? We do just as much as you do, I assure you, though there is little doubt you will not accept this claim.
I challenge you to open your narrowed mind and start a dialogue with people who have more expertise in these areas than you. You may be a concerned citizen and you may not agree with them, but please at least contribute something meaningful to the discussion other than your negativity.
I suspect I will just get a insulting comment mocking my intelligence as a result of my opinions.

Sam B says:

That’s truly incredible: the lack of visible smoke is the standard we try to meet at our power plants? Even if that were true, it seems a little worrisome to me that our EPA standards were apparently written by a kindergartener. It’s no surprise that our collective “energy IQ” is so pitiful if that gets to count as an informed comment.

Brock Meade says:

Even the employees of the coal fire power plant will tell you the low height of their smokestacks is a problem. Smoke does indeed seep from the smoke stacks, visible or not, and threatens the health of the pedestrians at the parking garage and patients at the hospital.

John says:

if you like nature and wildlife and dont care about industry go move to siberia i hear there arent many people out there and you can have all the nature you want.

Thelma says:

Dear Friends of Clean Air, I like to have food on my table to eat. I choose not to forage for food. I don’t foresee myself running around in a loin-cloth trying to find a meal in the forest. But, I too love wildlife. When brook trout in a stream all die, that is not a good sign for us humans either. When a coal company’s run off destroys a waterway. They should pay a hefty fine AND restore the steam and its inhabitants. Once this happens, they will not do it again, that is if they do the all the fore mentioned.
What do you think would happen hypothetically if all electric power suddenly went off.
Have you thought of that possibility ? How many people would die?
Not everyone could live off the land. Many are not physically able. Most are not mentally able (or have the knowledge to survive).

Now that is somewhat what environmentalist are doing to industry.
It takes some time to develop and implement new technologies to reduce pollution.

Industry has made strides (perhaps not enough to suit many, but some)
New technologies are being developed. Calgon Carbon’s flu-pac for instance takes impurities from coal out in Power Plants, – it is in its infancy. But a tool for bettering the environment.

There are clean coal technolgy plants that reduce pollution over 90% being built in Kentucky now.

So Friends of Clean Air, remember the technology that produced the computer your are working on also produced some nasty pollution (check out pollution form PC industries and circuit boards)
Meanwhile I will enjoy occasionally Fly Fishing and watching my tv.
Have a good day !

Friends of Clean Air. says:

Sorry Thelma. When it comes to the environment, I don’t give a flying crap about industry moving out of this country and industry being taxed. “Industry” is what has trashed our environment to begin with. Corporate greed and glut. Profit over people and the environment. Rape the land, ravage entire mountaintops, dig holes in the earth and fill it with toxic waste and pollutants and garbage…all for the almighty dollar. Stick with antiquated forms of energy like coal to continue to pad the pockets of the fat and rich at the top. I don’t give a crap about industry. I care about wildlife. I care about the mountains. I care about the air and water. I care about the trees and the plants and the living things that truly know how to coexist with other living things on this planet. I care about keeping the few people that live with the earth and not just on the earth healthy.

Wake up! Turn off your tv! Go on a hike and see what else is out there Thelma.

Thelma says:

‘Honestly Speaking..’.., and you added something ?

Is that the best you can do? Pick out one statement and trash it -because it is contrary to your opinion.

Industries are moving their operations out of this country because of poorly conceived environmental regulations, as well as a myriad of other regulations. Industry is taxed at the highest rate among industrialized nations. Yet our President wants ‘cap and trade’
Wake up ! Learn Chinese !

Honestly speaking... says:

I get so sick of the mindless jabbering of the mindless.

Thelma, you added nothing to this discussion and debate. If we don’t burn coal, China will. Really? That is your input here. We can be irresponsible to our environment and our citizenry because China is? We should burn coal because China does? We can justify irresponsibility by pointing to irresponsibility? Really? Insults and China? Is that really the best you can do here?

Here is my proposal Thelma…hush up until you have something intelligent to add to this discussion.

Thelma says:

I get so sick of the mindless jabbering of Pseudo Environmental Energy Groupies.
Here is my proposal. Lets turn off those coal-fired boilers. Lets turn off all the electricty from those coal fired power plants.
Now lets see how far your windmills get you. -When the lights go out, your computers will not work, Some of you neo-Commie environmental groupies blow off enough hot air to last you awhile – but what about the rest of us?
Think about it.

Or an even better Idea. What if all the coal burning power plants went off the power grid and only supplied power to the coal producing states. -That would be interesting.
Yes coal is dirty, but clean coal technology has fallen behind because the power plants were exempted from many regulations over the years.
And a final thought – if we don’t burn it – China will !!!
Have a nice day.

Friends of Clean Air. says:

What Tom Whitaker has also failed to point out in his staggeringly inaccurate quote is that the EPA standards the UK heating plants are held to are as antiquated as the plants themselves. That is thanks to the notorious grandfather clause in our clean air legislation which allows old and outdated coal plants like UK’s to be held to older, outdated, and less stringent air quality standards.

In other words, the only reason UK “meets” EPA standards- a dubious claim by Whitaker at best- is because of a legislative loophole which doesn’t hold UK to modern standards.

Shame on UK for allowing its staff to perpetuate falsehoods about the coal-fired heating plants. No wonder groups like Beyond Coal and Greenthumb and others around campus and Lexington who voice concern about the coal plants are slandered by UK students who have fallen for these blatant lies. I can’t help but think this is the true motivation behind these “tours”.

s.smith says:

Why not exceed EPA Standards or is UK opting for the Status Quo?

Tired of False Propaganda says:

I agree completely with the comment above from “Friends of Clean Air”. It is absolutely ridiculous that a plant supervisor would be spreading this false propaganda to young students to protect the university.

Also, the Energy Club stating that they hold a “neutral” stance on the issue is quite comical. The suggestion that previous groups who have opposed the continued use of the coal boilers on campus have not been using FACTS to formulate their opinions is ridiculous.

Friends of Clean Air. says:

“We meet the (EPA) standards because you can’t see anything coming out of (the stacks),” Whitaker said.

Who does Tom Whitaker think he’s fooling? I’m disappointed the Kernel would even publish such a statement, as it is a bold-faced lie. The people who live and work around UK’s coal-fired heating plants know very well that the smog coming out of the stacks on S. Upper and by the hospital is very visible on a daily basis.

And if UK thinks it’s going to rally support around it’s antiquated coal-fired heating plants by offering tours, it must really think its students, faculty, and staff were born yesterday. Give me clean air and water, not a save-face tour of a coal-fired heating plant.