Cost of energy: officials discuss power plants, conservation

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UK’s energy use was the topic of conversation Thursday, when UK energy officials broke down specific costs and energy consumption numbers.

The Kentucky Energy Club hosted a forum with Sustainability Coordinator Shane Tedder and Bob Wiseman, vice president of facilities. Tedder and Wiseman discussed the costs of coal versus natural gas, exploring energy options and where UK’s energy comes from.

The hot water and heat for campus is supplied from three on-site facilities that produce the steam.

Students toured one of the coal-fired steam plants on Wednesday, which is located on South Upper Street. The other two facilities are the Medical Center Plant, located near the hospital, and the Central Utilities Plant, located on Press Avenue.

The Central Utilities Plant, or CUP, is the newest plant that only uses natural gas and has ultra-low nitrogen oxide burners.

The three plants do not produce electricity. UK purchases electricity from the Kentucky Utilities company, which costs more than $19 million annually, according to an energy use report by Facilities Management.

On average, 68 percent of the university’s heat is produced by burning coal and 32 percent is from burning gas. Exact percentages vary by year due to pricing fluctuations and weather conditions, the report said.

“We have genuinely tried to be an open and transparent institution,” Wiseman said.

People often try to compare UK’s energy consumption per student to that of other universities, he said. But because UK has three hospitals with all professional schools located at one location, “it’s very tough to have apples-to-apples comparisons,” he said.

The five-year average coal usage for the university is 36,565 tons of coal per year, but according to the report, UK is a relatively small purchaser of coal in the state. Annually, UK spends $3.6 million on natural gas and more than $3.7 million for coal.

“We don’t just burn coal for political reasons,” Wiseman said. “We burn fuel based on cost efficiency.”

Tyler Hess, an agriculture junior who went on the tour, said there are multiple problems with the coal-fired power plants on campus. He cited the fact the smoke stacks are too low at the Central Heating Plant, which even one of the supervisors pointed out.

“There is a maximum of 20 years of coal left in Kentucky,” Hess said. “I think we need to be thinking about the future.”

During the presentation, Hess asked Wiseman if an alternative energy feasibility study could work. Hess referenced Ball State University, and how it is working to convert its campus to geothermal energy.

Wiseman said the new residence halls are considering using geothermal energy, and he thinks there will be pieces of campus in the future using alternative energy sources.

“Coal right now and the regulations governing coal burning is very uncertain,” Wiseman said. The political battle “leaves us in the middle of wondering what to do.”

In the past two years, UK has implemented a $25-million conservation project, with a goal to “reduce energy use by 10 to 15 percent annually,” according to the report. Among other things, the project included the purchase of energy efficient products, retrofitting lighting and upgrading mechanical equipment.

One of the most notable implementations was launched last week, called Empowered. The project installed computer kiosks outside campus buildings to show the building’s energy use.

Tedder said part of the mission of Empowered is to “inspire individuals to participate in the culture of energy conservation.”

Hess would have liked to seen the university spend $40,000 of the project’s money on a feasibility study to investigate alternative energy sources. He said with the study, the university could address the “uncertainties” Wiseman spoke about by bringing in experts to establish what needs to be changed.

“I’m not asking to shut down coal plants tomorrow,” Hess said. “I’m asking them to evaluate options.”