Higher Ed Now Coloring Natural Gas Green

August 2013, Vol. 240 No. 8

Michael A. Nicoloro, P.E., and Joan M. Fontaine, P.E.

By widely embracing natural gas as a primary fuel source, U.S. colleges and universities have joined the ever-growing movement for energy change. Spurred by organizations like the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) – which was created to help institutions meet ambitious, long-term energy goals – higher education is demonstrating that natural gas is an effective “green” solution in more ways than one: it reduces one’s carbon footprint and saves money on long-term energy costs.

Institutions of higher education are discovering that there are positive benefits to embracing natural gas. For starters, it costs less: the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has projected oil to be two to three times more costly than natural gas through the year 2035. Also, natural gas CO-2 emissions are 25% less than oil, while nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions are significantly lower.

Finally, natural gas can help bring America much-sought-after energy independence, as well as create new jobs. According to the EIA, it’s estimated that the U.S. possesses a total resource base of 2,203 Tcf of natural gas that is technically recoverable. The large total in estimated gas supplies is largely thanks to new drilling technologies that are unlocking substantial amounts of natural gas from shale rocks. The EIA estimates that the unproved technically recoverable resource of shale gas for the U.S. is 482 Tcf.

New Gas-Fired Facilities
Many institutions of higher education are closing their coal- and oil-fired plants and constructing new gas-fired facilities. Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, installed a 15,000-square-foot, natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) facility that produces up to 30,000 kilowatts of electricity per year (or about 70% of campus usage). An interstate natural gas pipeline is located about three miles from campus, and Cornell has installed and owns a spur from that line.

It’s estimated that the university, which previously utilized a coal-fired CHP plant, has cut its carbon emissions by nearly 30% (or roughly 75,000 tons annually). Discontinuing coal also cuts down on diesel fuel usage (upwards of 100,000 gallons a year) since trucks will no longer be needed to deliver the coal to Cornell.

Downstate, New York University (NYU) installed a natural gas-fired CHP plant. Compared with the university’s former oil-fired CHP plant, the upgrade decreases greenhouse gas emissions by 23% while reducing air pollutants by 68%.

Located beneath a renovated public plaza, the new CHP plant approaches 90% energy efficiency while producing 13.4 megawatts of electricity, twice the output of the previous system. The plant provides electricity to 22 NYU buildings, produces heat and hot and chilled water to 37 buildings on the Washington Square Campus, and is expected to save the university $5-8 million in annual energy-related costs.

Retrofitting Existing Plants
Other institutions are taking an alternative route and retrofitting existing coal- and oil-fired plants to burn natural gas. For example, the University of Southern Maine (USM) converted its Portland campus’ central heating plant from oil to natural gas. The switch was part of USM’s “Plan for Carbon Neutrality” which aims to convert all of the campus’ operations to natural gas by 2025 and end net emissions of university-related climate-disrupting gases by 2040.

Switching To Natural Gas
Ohio University in Athens, OH. gave a five-month tryout to running its Lausche Heating Plant completely on natural gas rather than coal. Aside from a lessening of overall electrical costs, the university’s Energy Management department expected the following reductions in emissions: carbon dioxide by 41%, carbon monoxide by 41%, sulfur by almost 100%, mercury by almost 99%, nitrogen oxides by 75%, and particulates by 51%. The five months of utilizing natural gas served as a pilot for the university’s full conversion to natural gas, which should occur in 2015.

Also, South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings, SD, switched from burning coal to burning natural gas in its physical plant’s boilers. Natural gas has helped lower the university’s overall energy costs. Despite the university’s increase of square footage (400,000 square feet between 2009-11) and a significant increase in the size of the student body, the cost of energy has decreased per square foot. The price is now just $1.68 per square foot and utility costs are $401.12 per full time student a year. Other universities with the same type of buildings and research operations range on average between $600-700 per student.

LNG And CNG pricing
Unfortunately, colleges and universities can’t all be served by a natural gas pipeline. However, these institutions can still make a commitment to natural gas by using “portable pipeline” solutions: liquefied natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG). With the technology now available to extract shale gas from beneath the ground, long-term projections for natural gas pricing are significantly lower than fuel oil. LNG and CNG pricing structures benefit from a pricing perspective for this same reason.

CNG suppliers currently quote prices around $14/MMBtu. Such costs cover equipment-leasing agreements and deliveries of CNG. A college or university will need to provide an adequate site, oil burner conversions, and piping that connects end-use equipment to the CNG source. However some CNG suppliers may roll those costs into a financing package.

The LNG delivery model and associated pricing differs from CNG. With LNG, the end user is responsible for the upfront capital expenditure of the LNG facility. The end user then contracts directly with the LNG supplier and transporter for supply and delivery of the LNG. Delivered LNG is currently in the range of $10-12/MMBtu.

Economic And Environmental Stewards

Embracing natural gas not only promotes “green” initiatives in the environmental sense, but green initiatives in the more traditional sense, as it will ultimately save institutions thousands of dollars each year.

For decades now, U.S. colleges and universities have led the way in areas such as research and technology development. Today, many are leading the way in showing how an educational institution can become both an economic and environmental steward.

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