UGA takes next big step toward replacing aging coal boiler

UGA takes next big step toward replacing aging coal boiler

By LEE SHEARER updated Tuesday, March 5, 2013 – 11:32pm

The University of Georgia has taken a new step toward eliminating its aging coal-powered steam boiler.

UGA officials have asked engineering firms to submit bids to conduct a study that would evaluate possible replacements for the old coal boiler.

“It’s not a full-blown design, but it’s a very real first step,” said David Spradley, UGA’s assistant director of energy services. “This study is the real start.”

Firms have until April 1 to submit their proposals to help UGA engineers and administrators decide on a design for a new plant, which is planned to generate not only steam but provide the campus with nearly all its electricity during summer peak-demand periods.

UGA officials hope to get 20 or more proposals, interview three or four of the firms, and choose a winner by about the first of May. The chosen firm would have an October deadline to complete the study.

A preliminary study conducted by North Carolina State University for the U.S. Department of Energy has already identified several possible replacement technologies, including a plant that would be powered with woody biomass, such as the wood left over after timber harvests.

But that study was only a rough first pass; the study that UGA is seeking is meant to be much more precise in terms of equipment needed, energy efficiency, plant life and other details.

UGA energy planners expect to save enough money in increased energy efficiency to pay for the cost of building the plant over several years, according to Spradley. The new plant should also reduce the university’s carbon emissions by at least 8 percent, according to UGA specifications.

Campus planners remain leery of biomass and are leaning toward a natural gas-powered unit.

The university needs a plant that can generate up to 150,000 pounds of steam per hour — three times the capability of the coal boiler, built nearly 50 years ago, Spradley said.

No biomass-powered plant that large has ever been built, Spradley said.

And a biomass plant would create a lot of truck traffic in the middle of campus, where the coal boiler is, along with other boilers that run mainly on natural gas. The natural gas boilers supply most of the steam for the campus; the coal boiler is only fired up during high-demand times in winter.

Wood is not an efficient fuel compared to coal or natural gas, so the plant would have to burn a lot more wood to get the same amount of heat as a smaller amount of the other fuels, Spradley explained.

“The issue is logistics. We have limited space,” he said. “To have that kind of traffic on campus — we’d have to think about that.”

But UGA wouldn’t have to transport natural gas or build a storage area for it, since gas comes in through a pipe. And gas prices are low, Spradley said.

“Right now gas is fairly cheap, and projections are that we will have 40 or 50 years of it,” Spradley said.

Work on the new plant could conceivably begin in one to three years.

“We don’t really have a time frame, but we do know the clock is ticking,” Spradley said. “It’s a lot of work to keep (the old coal boiler) up and running every year.”

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