ENPH Student Pat Bloecher has done some nice faculty-student research with me on risks from the coal-fired heating plant. Here's our Research Day abstract:
Estimates of Mortality and Morbidity from the UW-Eau Claire Coal-Fired Heating Plant
Combustion of coal to produce heat and electricity releases particulate matter, mercury, sulfur and global warming gases into the air. A recent finding by the DNR that coal plants around the UW system are in violation of the Clean Air Act has generated consideration of biofuels and natural gas as substitute fuels at UW-Eau Claire. We used the coal plant’s emission rates, the SCREEN3 air dispersion model, and Google Earth to estimate the increased rate of death and disease from inhaling particles from the plant. The estimated breathing zone concentrations were similar to those established in the DNR permit for emissions. Rates of increased mortality (death) ranged from 0.058% per year at 500 m, to 0.045% per year at 2,000 m from the plant.
Our heating plant director has been testing biofuels (sawdust pellets) as an alternative cleaner fuel. The principal concerns he has in this regard is building enough space for pellet delivery, and providing a consistent feed to the boilers.
The first issue is that the pellets have about 1/6 of the energy of the same mass of coal, so about six times more space would be needed to deliver and store the biofuel. The second issue is providing a consistent density of pellets to the boiler -- there are issues with larger pellets separating from the smaller pellets and dust in the conveyor system.
My understanding is that natural gas could readily be used in all three boilers (it is currently used in one). Jim's concern is about the volatility of natural gas prices. It seems to me that the university could buy natural gas in large quantities on a contract at a stable price.
For those wanting to learn about the DNR's recent conclusion that coal plants around the system are in violation of the Clean Air Act, here's a quick news item: http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-02-19/business/17948500_1_plants-sierra-club-clean-air-act.