When it comes to the greening of Indiana's college campuses, 2010 will surely go down as the best of times and the worst of times.
On one side: Ball State University, in Muncie, which proceeds apace with plans to convert its coal-burning energy facilities to an Earth-friendly geothermal model.
On the other: Purdue University, in West Lafayette – a university with a deserved reputation for engineering and technology innovation – which proceeds apace with efforts to continue burning coal as part of a multi-million power plant upgrade.
Purdue has plans to replace a 50-year-old coal boiler with a natural gas boiler to handle increased demand, and a $53-million so-called "clean-coal" boiler at its Wade Power Plant facility. In July, the university announced that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) had approved a construction permit.
Just last week, IDEM approved a renewal of what's known as a "Title V" air quality permit, bringing the project one step closer to fruition.
"At this time, there is no alternative solid fuel that is economical enough to be used as a substitute for coal," said Chris Sigurdson, assistant vice president of external relations at Purdue. "But the design of our solution is flexible enough that we can switch to more sustainable energy sources when they become viable."
Sigurdson said the new upgrade will reduce regulated emissions by 40 to 93 percent.
But the move has environmental advocates around the state up in arms. Alexis Boxer, a Lafayette-based, statewide field organizer for the Sierra Club, argued that Purdue's reductions are beside the point.
"Purdue is touting this as clean coal because it will lower certain emissions from the smokestacks a bit," she said. "But this is in comparison to their old boiler, which is over 50 years old. It's not compared to great new technology."
She pointed to universities that are making far greater strides toward alternative energy use.
"It's a serious problem when you see universities like Ball State, and the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois that have all made commitments to move off of coal," she said. "Purdue is the only university in the country that's moving forward with new coal infrastructure."
Several critics have noted uncomfortable overlaps among Purdue, the coal industry, and a broader, statewide strategy toward expanding the Indiana coal industry.
Indiana uses coal to generate some 95 percent of its electricity, a percentage that has grown in recent years, despite shifting tides of public sentiment away from fossil fuels. Such growth is by design. Governor Mitch Daniels has made coal production a priority of his energy policy, as exemplified in the state's strategic energy plan, released in 2006.
As reported in NUVO in 2008, Purdue's Center for Coal Technology Research, as well as Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company, provided much of the research for the Daniels plan. As of late 2008, NUVO found that executives at Black Beauty Coal, Indiana's largest coal company and a subsidiary ofPeabody, had donated at least $200,000 in private campaign contributions directly to Daniels and $100,000 to the Indiana Republican State Committee.
State law (IC 5-22-15-22) requires that state universities and other state institutions that use coal must use Indiana coal – a clear boon for the Hoosier coal industry. Meanwhile, Peabody announced last month that Indiana would soon become home to the largest coal mine in the Eastern United States, just south of the town of Dugger.
The centerpiece of Daniels' Homegrown Hoosier Energy plan, as the 2006 plan is called, is its push for so-called "clean-coal" technology, which captures most emissions of sulfur and some other pollutants – pollutants which are then disposed of elsewhere, usually underground. But abundant research shows the technology still produces as much as five times more carbon dioxide waste than natural gas facilities, to say nothing of cleaner technologies like geothermal.
The process also produces coal ash, a toxic byproduct that the Sierra Club says has been linked to cancer clusters at disposal sites around the country and around the state, in places like Gibson County.
Boxer, like many others, argued that there was "no such thing" as clean coal, which, she said, "is a problem from the cradle to the grave."
Environmental advocates say that the permit approval process was based on flawed analysis by IDEM – a department that's come under fire in recent years for what's perceived as a cozy relationship with the coal industry. Just last year IDEM appointed David Joest, a long time former lobbyist for Peabody, as assistant commissioner for the department's Office of Legal Counsel, where his job is pursuing criminal investigations and civil enforcement against state polluters.
Last month, the Sierra Club and the Hoosier Environmental Council filed a joint petition for administrative review with the state Office of Environmental Adjudication (OEA) calling IDEM's analysis into question. Specifically, the petition alleges that IDEM's permit "allows (for) the construction of new air pollution emission sources and increases in air pollution, beyond what is allowed by law, which will have the effect of decreasing visibility, increasing risk of heart and lung disease (and) causing and exacerbating breathing problems."
Christa Westerberg, the attorney who filed the petition on behalf of the HEC and Sierra Club, explained that IDEM's analysis made "a number of different errors, all of which resulted in Purdue, and the IDEM, giving Purdue too much credit for its shutdown of the old boiler."
The petition also argues that Purdue's plans do not include adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to meet its own hydrochloric acid cap, among other things.
For its part, IDEM has pointed to its efforts to accommodate the concerns of the public, as expressed during an extended, two-month public comment period last spring, and at a public meeting held in West Lafayette, last May, by the department's Office of Air Quality.
Rob Elstro, a spokesman for IDEM, said the agency could not respond to the allegations regarding IDEM's permitting analysis because the matter was still pending adjudication.
A greener alternative
Not every state institution seems so beholden to coal. As Purdue looks to pursue further coal-burning operations, Ball State has sought a greener alternative to fossil fuels. Indeed, its efforts to make the switch to geothermal energy have placed it at the vanguard of campuses nationwide.
Yet, when Ball State first began looking at its options for replacing its boilers four to five years ago, engineers originally looked at the same so-called "clean coal" upgrades Purdue is pursuing now. "At the time, that's what was available," explained Jim Lowe, director of engineering, construction, and operations for Ball State.
Original estimates for the reduced-emissions coal-based upgrade put the project at about $40 million. Ball State, being a state-funded university, submitted its request for appropriations to the state, and the state agreed.
But as time progressed, it became clear that other universities were beginning to explore other, more eco-friendly alternatives. The University of Iowa, for example, had begun mixing biomass in with its coal as early as 2001, eventually converting one of its coal-fired boilers to burn oat hulls from the Quaker Oats facility in nearby Cedar Rapids.The University of Missouri had begun integrating biomass into its coal-burners– from wood chips to corn stover – in 1995. (Missouri announced recently it would have an all-biomass boiler online to replace one of its coal-fired boilers by 2012.) Ball State considered doing likewise, starting with a mix of fuels, and moving toward full alternative fuel use as time wore on.
As importantly, perhaps, the price tag went up. What had originally looked like a roughly $40 million project for newer, more flexible coal boilers, shot up to about $65 million once all kinds of new emission control equipment were taken into consideration. Suddenly the financial incentives of a coal-based approach were a lot less significant when compared to other options – like geothermal.
"We went, ok, let's step back for a moment and rethink where we're going with this,"' Lowe said. "Everything kind of fell in place to rethink our plan – to take a hard look."
A campus-wide upgrade to geothermal-based energy was projected to cost under $80 million – a not-too-far cry from the revised costs of a clean-coal boiler. Lowe said that savings from no longer purchasing coal would amount to big cost savings over time.
The state agreed to reallocate the nearly $44 million it had agreed to for the original plan, and with help of a $5 million clean energy grant from the federal government, Ball State is on pace to complete the first half of the conversion by fall of 2011.
Lowe said he wasn't sure where the rest of the money would come from to complete the second half, but did not anticipate any problems.
Purdue insists the kinds of improvements in motion on campuses like Ball State's aren't applicable everywhere.
"We have almost four times more buildings than Ball State," Sigurdson, the Purdue spokesman, said. "Taking a campus of 375 buildings, 35,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff through an Indiana winter requires a proven, commercially available source of fuel."
Sigurdson also cited the costs of a major overhaul like Ball State's as a prohibitive factor.
"As a public institution we are sensitive to costs," Sigurdson said. "We looked at the costs associated with alternative technologies, all of which would cost more.As we try to balance our responsibilities to the environment, we have to take our students' financial burden into account as well."
Critics like Boxer, however, have pointed to the longer-term cost savings projected by the geothermal conversion at Ball State, also a public institution.
Offsetting annual coal costs at Purdue would, by themselves, represent huge savings over time. The Lafayette Journal and Courier, a local newspaper that has been following the story closely, reported that, according to the university utilities department, Purdue bought 177,834 tons of coal during the last fiscal year, at a cost of $13.9 million.
James Almond, senior vice president for business services and assistant treasurer at Purdue, said the university expected reduced operating costs over time, as well, but said estimates were contingent upon the final specifications of the new boilers and were still under review.
Lowe, from Ball State, emphasized that such decisions had to be made on a "campus-by-campus" basis, noting, like Sigurdson, Purdue's larger size, along with the Wade facility's position at the far south end of Purdue's campus.
But Lowe also noted that Ball State's "closed-loop" geothermal strategy was "applicable everywhere." Rather than extracting hot water from deep underground, a closed-loop system circulates water through underground pipes to either discharge or pickup energy into or from the earth.
Boxer pointed to other large colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, in May, committed to ending coal use for campus heat within a decade, and the University of Illinois, which has pledged to eliminate coal use by 2017.
"Purdue is contributing to the problem," she said. "We'd really like to see them step up and save their reputation as an innovator and as an engineering university. They're really backtracking."
Jaclyn Goldsborough contributed reporting for this article.
Editor's note: Because of the ambiguous way it was worded, an earlier version of this story may have given the impression that Purdue's entire upgrade is projected to cost $53 million. That figure is for the new coal-fired boiler only, and doesn't include the cost of a new natural gas boiler. The story has been modified to clarify.