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

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.