Coal continues to give way to alternative fuels in powering University of Missouri campus

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Tom Hellauer reports in The Missourian on the continuing trend toward wood and natural gas and away from coal as fuel for the University of Missouri (MU) Power Plant. The University of Missouri is a member of the International District Energy Association (IDEA).

The MU Power Plant continues to throttle back on its use of coal in the face of stiffening environmental regulations and the availability of alternative fuels.

Since the 2008 fiscal year, the amount of coal burned at the power plant to generate electricity and steam to power, heat and cool the MU campus has declined from 181,692 tons to 48,360 tons.

Greenhouse gas emissions decreased 43 percent during that same period according to Ken Davis, assistant director of energy management at MU.

A lessening reliance on coal has given rise to a mix of alternative fuels. Wood residues and natural gas make up 63 percent of fuel burned in boilers at the plant on Providence Road.

Natural gas, which produces about half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, accounts for 43 percent of the fuel mix, Davis said.

Pound for pound, however, natural gas traps heat in the atmosphere at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide from burning coal, according to the EPA. The downside has some scientists, such as the authors of a 2012 study, asserting that the switch from coal to natural gas will offer modest, if any, reductions in global temperatures this century.

Burning wood from sawmills and other sources has contributed to reduced emissions. A specialized boiler designed to burn biomass is filled with nearly 30 tractor trailer loads of wood chips each day, five days a week. The wood used for fuel is purchased from Foster Brothers Wood Products in Callaway County, and comes from within 100 miles of Columbia.

Wood chips have about half the energy output of coal, meaning more material is required to produce the same amount of electricity.

Incorporation of automated light and cooling systems in campus buildings has helped MU decrease its energy consumption per square foot by 20 percent since 1990.

Within the next two years, as part of the MU master plan, the power plant expects to reduce its coal consumption to 30,000 tons.

The trend at MU is reflected across the nation. The U.S Energy Administration in May reported a 15 percent decline in coal-fired generating capacity since 2011 in response to lower natural gas prices and environmental regulations.

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