Energy Talk – Closing a coal-fired power plant

Much is made of large schemes to alter the way in which energy is produced in the United States. Large scale wind farms, and great arrays of solar panels attract large interest and funding, yet it is often in the smaller projects, from the individual solar panels to the change in energy sources for individual factories, or in this case a university, that there is at least as much progress, though with less fanfare.

I wrote, some eighteen months ago about the geothermal plans at Missouri University of Science and Technology (MS&T) previously the University of Missouri-Rolla and my academic home for 42 years. At that time the campus was beginning a process that would see the different parking lots and other open areas around campus disrupted while a series of vertical wells and horizontal pipes was laid beneath the ground, prior to its restoration.


Figure 1. The MS&T Geothermal plan, showing the zoning of the wells and the connection pipe network.

Time has moved on since the initial plans were set in place, the trenches have been dug:


Figure 2. Geothermal trenches on campus, with walkways re-routed around them

Within the lots wells were then drilled roughly 430 ft deep, through which the system fluid will flow, and as these were drilled they were lined and connected by a secondary network.


Figure 3. Drilling the wells in the parking lots at the top right of Figure 1.

The network of wells is connected through plastic pipes that carry the water out to the wells, down and back up and then return to the central heat exchanger systems of the different circuits.


Figure 4. The heat exchange between the water and the ground (inhabitant )


Figure 5. The initial connections to the wells

Larger pipes are required to carry the water to and from the different fields to the processing plants where it is used to heat/chill water in a secondary circuit that is then distributed (depending on season to either warm or cool) through the network to the campus buildings.


Figure 6. The main pipe connections.

The parking lots have since been regraded, tarmac applied, and have, for some time been functioning as before.

Now the project is entering into the final days of installation, as a significant milestone has been reached. This week the coal and wood fired boiler #5 will shut down and all steam production at the campus power plant will permanently cease. Chillers are now operating for the summer to cool the buildings served by three of the regional plantsm which covers most of the air conditioning needs of the campus, and heat is being sent to six of the campus buildings.

Given the age, and change in the nature of the heating and air conditioning service to the buildings some still remain to have their systems upgraded, but most will now be completed while the students are away this summer.

Estimates of the savings that this will bring to the campus are in various forms. The coal and wood that have provided the energy source in the past will no longer be needed (and in time the plant will be removed). As well as the plant itself this will also free up the space where the coal was stored, and will improve the local aesthetic considerably along that side of the campus.


Figure 7. The campus power plant

The change in fuel will also see the overall amount of fuel required reduced, and it is anticipated that the energy use will be cut by 50%. Carbon dioxide emissions will be dropped by 25,000 tons a year (the system will still use significant amounts of natural gas) and water use will be cut by eight million gallons a year.

It is anticipated that the $ 32 million project will initially yield the campus a saving of around $ 1 million a year which will rise to more than $ 3 million a year as energy costs increase, while the system should not need significant maintenance for decades. There is a video of the project here). When completed, sometime next year the system will be serving 15 buildings with around a million square feet of floor space.

As the Missouri system was beginning, the initial phase of a similar system at Ball State was being completed . This will ultimately supply around 5.5 million square feet of campus space, and is expected to yield some $ 2 million a year in energy cost savings. Following the successful completion of Phase 1 of that project in March 2012, the Phase 2 project, requiring an additional 1,000 boreholes, was started in June of 2013, and is expected to be completed by some time next year. The four coal fired boilers at the plant (which consumed some 36,000 tons of coal a year,) were shut down in March of this year. Power will continue to be supplied from three natural gas boilers on campus. The $ 80 million project will have drilled a total of around 3,600 wells at the time of completion of Phase 2.

Oregon Tech has a 1.75 MW geothermal power plant, which combined with a solar electric array of panels on a 9-acre site off campus to produce most of the power needs of the campus. The dedication ceremony was on April 18th of this year. It is expected that the plant, which operates on a more conventional use of high-temperature water from the underlying host rock, will save the campus around $ 400,000 a year in energy. Water is brought up from 5,300 ft below the surface at a temperature of 200 degrees F, and used to spin two turbines, and as source of building heat, before being re-injected.

As the dates suggest this is a very new venture for universities and, as yet, there are not a lot of players in the game. Yet if the savings pan out to be at the level or greater than currently estimated it may well be more popular in the future as overall energy costs continue to rise. (Although in the short term natural gas prices may well rise a little, while coal prices are expected to fall a little).

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