UC Off Coal Thanks to Fuel Pellets

“No more coal!” says Joe Harrell, assistant vice president of the University of Cincinnati's Utilities Services.

In a campuswide effort to reduce the university’s carbon footprint, the last remaining coal boiler for UC energy has stopped burning coal and now only burns fuel pellets made from waste paper and other non-recyclable materials. In the end, the pellets are more cost efficient and much cleaner for the air.

Typically when people think of power on UC’s Uptown Campus, they think of the award-winning central utility plant and its state-of-the-art cogeneration technology. But Harrell points out that East Campus still contained two coal boilers until 2010.

In an effort to become more cost effective, sustainable and more environmentally friendly, the university has moved beyond burning coal and fossil fuel in those boilers to a more creative and efficient solution for generating heat.

More Bang for the Energy Buck

While coal-burning power plants in the US have been the target of environmental groups for decades, UC’s use of waste-paper pellets as the primary fuel in the existing coal boiler changed the trajectory of the university’s energy efficiency in a positive direction.

After adding fuel pellets to the boilers from 2008 to 2013, the university reduced its coal usage by more than 98 percent, from over 37,000 tons to just over 635 tons.

After the EPA issued the permit in April 2014 for UC to use fuel pellets exclusively instead of coal, the university stopped buying coal and has now purchased 603 tons of fuel pellets, Harrell explains.

More than four years ago UC began working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ohio Department of Development on plans to convert the remaining on-campus, coal-burning boiler into an alternative-energy unit.

Interdisciplinary Student Participation Gives Hands-On Experience

In 2011, UC’s Utilities Services collaborated with faculty and students in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences’ Environmental Studies Program and the College of Engineering & Applied Science to begin the conversion from coal to fuel pellets. This multi-year, multi-disciplinary effort also increases the educational and research opportunities for the students –– keeping in-line with the UC Forward and UC Third Century Initiative –– and has led to a patent-pending design that will make the pellets burn even cleaner.

“Students get real-world experience working on current energy issue solutions and I am grateful for what they bring to the table,” says Harrell. “We work with students all over campus including students from the College of Business and E-Media students from the College Conservatory of Music.”

Harrell explained that the collaborative solution for reducing the need for coal was three-fold:

  • To reduce the demand for steam
  • completely eliminate one of the boilers
  • change the fuel source of the remaining boiler from coal to a waste-paper fuel pellet system 

Men shoveling fuel pellets from the back of a dump truck.

Men shoveling fuel pellets from the back of a dump truck.

“Instead of investing in a new boiler, we invested in energy conservation,” says Harrell. “Our energy-conservation efforts worked and we have reduced our steam demand enough to eliminate the oldest of the two boilers. Instead of paying a contractor over half a million dollars to remove that boiler, our operators removed it.”

So, while completely removing the oldest boiler was no easy task –– as the boilers are massive four-story structures equivalent to over 400 residential furnaces –– this removal process was innovative, cost effective and sustainable.

“It has taken our personnel a longer time than a contractor to remove the boiler, but we were in no hurry to remover it because it was no longer needed,” says Harrell. “Our employees have disassembled, removed and recycled over 152,000 pounds of steel, brass and copper for which UC has received over $15,000.

UC continues to operate the other fuel boiler, but the university has since added new combustion controls, a solid state variable speed drive and state-of-the-art feeders, converting it from a coal boiler to a system that uses renewable pellets made from non-recyclable paper and materials.

Moreover, burning the fuel pellets instead of coal has significantly reduced UC’s carbon footprint.  Harrell notes that the

fuel pellets not only burn with an efficiently high BTU value, but they burn cleaner than coal by emitting very little mercury and sulfur, two of coal’s primary environmental toxins. And, unlike coal, the pellets don’t need to be mined.

A series of photos that show the manufacturing process of fuel pellets.

A series of photos that show the manufacturing process of fuel pellets.

Harrell explains that UC is not new to the area of energy management, especially around environmental issues and long-range economic gains.

“We have been investigating alternative energy projects for many years while staying focused on the big picture in terms of the payback period on our initial investment,” says Harrell. “While most of our projects will take three to five years to see a payback, some may go out six or seven years, but all of our energy efficiency efforts will see long-term benefits in the areas of increased reliability, avoiding future capital costs and being much more environmentally friendly.”

The fuel pellets were initially supplied by Greenwood Energy Co. in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but Harrell is investigating more local resources, which will significantly reduce shipping costs. Students have also helped to investigate new sources and even began making their own pellets from local waste materials from UC’s Facilities Management Recycling Program.

In 2014, students from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) created a video to help illustrate the

production of fuel pellets made from wastepaper and non-recyclable materials

, based on a fictitious company.

Other News:


“With Smart Energy Policy the University of Cincinnati Makes the Grade and Reduces Costs By Nine Million Dollars A Year”

More UC Earth Day News

UC is Highlighted Among the Princeton Review’s Green Colleges

From Food Waste to Fuel, CEAS Does Energy Sustainability Better

UC Dining, Aramark Offer Eggs from Cage-Free Hens

Thanks to Energy-Saving Efforts, UC Earns Most Duke Energy Rebates

UC Becomes First American Public University to Sell Green Bonds

Streets Surrounding UC’s Uptown Campus are Getting Brighter

Biology Department Hosts Plant Sale on Campus

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