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Kicking Coal with Pellet Power


The University of Cincinnati’s Utilities Services is testing the use of fuel pellets as a possible replacement for coal in UC’s solid fuel boiler. The pellets are a cleaner, more cost-effective resource than coal.

Date: 4/18/2013 12:50:00 PM
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Fuell pellet photo provided by Joe Harrell

UC ingot   The University of Cincinnati is hoping some little pellets can go a long way toward replacing coal as a fuel source.

UC’s Utilities Services has been working with faculty and students in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences’ Environmental Studies Program and the College of Engineering & Applied Science to implement fuel pellet usage in the university’s solid fuel boiler. Joe Harrell, Utilities assistant vice president, says though the pellets are small, they can have a big impact on more than just UC’s fuel resources.
A delivery truck deposits fuel pellets at UC's Central Utility Plant.



“These pellets could reduce our costs, reduce our carbon footprint and allow UC to move beyond coal without much capital investment,” Harrell says.

Decreased reliance on coal is an important element in Utilities Services’ mission to provide a safe, healthy and comfortable environment for the university community. And it’s an area in which significant progress has been made over the past five years. Since 2008, the university has reduced its coal usage by more than 98 percent.

University of Cincinnati Coal Usage by Tons per Fiscal Year
2008: 37,483
2009: 33,989.5
2010: 30,542.95
2011: 24,006.65
2012: 727.95
2013: 635.53

Using fuel pellets could drop that number even lower. The pellets are made from waste materials – such as industrial papers and plastics – that can’t be recycled. If left to decompose in landfills, these materials would eventually produce methane, a more powerful atmospheric toxin than carbon dioxide. Instead, these materials are shredded, pressed and shaped into a dense pellet that’s about the size of a $1 stack of dimes. These pellets can be used as a cleaner, more cost-effective substitute for coal.

“The pellets are much cleaner than coal because they contain very little mercury or sulfur,” Harrell says. “Also, unlike coal, these pellets don’t need to be mined.”

For now, UC is using the pellets on a trial basis. The pellets are shipped from Green Bay, Wis., but Harrell says UC is looking for local partners to provide the pellets to reduce shipping costs. Utilities has had help on this project from students who have investigated new sources for fuel pellets and have even made some of their own pellets from local waste material.

“The students in the environmental studies capstone course came into this with a typical view – coal is bad, get rid of it and do the right thing,” says Jodi Shann, professor of biological studies and director of the Environmental Studies Program. “They are now walking away with a far greater understanding of the complexity of energy and how much effort it takes to work toward a more sustainable solution.”
UC was recently honored by the EPA for its efficient use of the Central Utility Plant.



Meanwhile, Harrell notes that another effort in UC’s search for such sustainable solutions has again received special recognition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Combined Heat and Power Partnership. The EPA recently awarded UC for its efficient operation of the Central Utility Plant, which produces energy via the cogeneration method. This process uses one fuel source to produce thermal energy and electricity – an environmental and economic advantage over the conventional, multi-fuel-sourced separate heat and power method.

The EPA report on estimated carbon emissions avoided in 2012 shows that UC’s cogeneration plant avoided emissions of more than 128,000 metric tons, equal to those from the generation of electricity used annually by 15,910 homes. UC’s cogeneration plant is responsible for cumulative avoided emissions of an estimated 1,170,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared to conventional energy sources. UC has now been honored five times by the EPA for its efforts in this area.

Coal-fired power plants are often a prime target of environmental angst. The EPA reports that byproducts of burning coal for electricity are one of the largest waste streams generated in the United States, and the process generally causes more pollution per unit of electricity than any other fuel. The American Coal Ash Association's Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report shows that more than 136 million tons of coal combustion residuals were generated in 2008.

More UC news related to Earth Day:

- UC Gets a ‘Green’ Thumbs-Up from Princeton Review.

- What on Earth Day is going on around campus? Find out here.

- It looks like a bright, “green” future for UC.

- Recycling at UC is growing tons at a time.