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Heating plant renovation ushers in greener era

January 27, 2010 By Chris Barncard

The Charter Street Heating Plant, an aging but critical source of energy for campus, is about to undergo a transformation that will take the state and university to the 21st century frontiers of cleaner, coal-free power.

“We could have met that standard by putting a scrubber on the plant’s chimney. But Gov. Doyle took a big extra step here and said, ‘Let’s look at eliminating coal altogether.’”

Alan Fish

Three of the plant’s boilers were purchased secondhand in the late 1950s from Detroit’s American Motors automobile factory. The boilers will be upgraded and the plant’s primary fuel will shift from West Virginia coal to biomass and natural gas during the next three years as part of a $251 million state-funded retrofitting.

In the process, the upgrade will jump-start a Wisconsin market for biomass products, improve Madison’s air quality, generate more electricity for the campus and better manage railroad traffic near the plant.

In announcing the upgrade a few months ago, Gov. Jim Doyle said the project is part of his commitment to stop burning coal at state-owned heating plants on Madison’s isthmus.

“We must move away from our dependence on coal,” Doyle said. “This new project will help build the biomass market in Wisconsin, keep the money we spend on energy in the local economy and create green jobs in the area.”

Against the backdrop of the major construction projects under way on campus, the demolition of an outlying, one-story building devoid of student activity doesn’t seem like a big deal.

However, as the maintenance shops at 115 N. Mills St. are torn down and moved to new quarters now under construction at 30 N. Mills St., they make way for the redesign of the plant and transformation of UW–Madison’s environmental footprint.

Changes to the coal-burning plant were in order, considering the addition of 2 million square feet to the university’s campus footprint during the last six years. A lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club pushed the issue to the fore by mandating an update to the plant’s pollution-control measures.

“We could have met that standard by putting a scrubber on the plant’s chimney,” says Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and management. “But Gov. Doyle took a big extra step here and said, ‘Let’s look at eliminating coal altogether.’”

During the next three years, the plant will shed its oft-maligned outdoor coal pile and turn to generating steam, chilled water and electricity derived from Wisconsin-produced biomass from agriculture and forest products. In the process, it should help clear the air and spur the creation of a profitable renewable energy supply chain in the state.

The plant’s metamorphosis will unfold at the heart of an already remarkably efficient heating and cooling system, incorporating miles of pipe running beneath campus.

“Our district heating plan was a sustainable decision more than 100 years ago, before anyone knew the meaning of the word ‘sustainable,’” Fish says.

Producing steam and chilled water at a central plant saves 20 percent of the energy it would take if each building had its own equipment for heating and cooling, and the university’s We Conserve program and a long list of campus efficiency projects are “shaving the top off our energy demand,” as Fish puts it.

But need and skyrocketing fuel prices pushed UW–Madison’s annual energy spending up more than two-fold (from $20 million to $50 million) from 2002–08, driven by higher costs for coal and natural gas. And the Charter Street plant is plugging along with 1950s-era technology, in distinct contrast to the much newer, cleaner natural gas-fueled West Campus Cogeneration Facility the university operates with Madison Gas and Electric Co.

“The need for additional steam capacity was apparent,” says John Harrod, UW–Madison physical plant director. “And we decided we could also generate 20 megawatts of electricity to be used on campus as part of the Charter Street project.”

A contractor will be chosen in the spring to build a biomass boiler. Permitting by the state and city will follow, and the boiler should be online about two years after construction starts. In the interim, a pair of natural gas boilers will be built at Charter Street and stand-in when the coal plant is decommissioned.

The type of biomass boiler eventually put into service is still up for discussion among the plant’s design team, owing largely to the relative immaturity of the biomass fuel supply stream as compared to coal.

“It’s possible that there will be better choices available for fuel at different times through the lifetime of this plant, so we want to make a boiler choice that is as fuel-flexible as possible,” Fish says.

More certain are the environmental benefits of eliminating the coal plant from the Madison isthmus.

“If you look at the pollutants and greenhouse gases after the change to biomass, mercury and heavy metals will effectively be gone,” Fish says. “Sulfur dioxide will be nearly eliminated. Nitrous oxide will go down by half. Carbon dioxide from non-renewable sources will go down 80 percent, and biomass will make up more than half the fuel for energy used on campus.”

Dane County, on the threshold of violating air quality regulations and finding itself subject to more strict controls on emissions, should rack up favorable marks after the Charter Street plant drops coal, Fish says.

The plant will need as much as 250,000 tons of fuel per year, serving as a veritable incubator for a biomass fuel energy industry in Wisconsin. This has potential benefits for farmers, landowners and the forest products industry.

Currently there is no homegrown energy market for agricultural waste products and grasses that can be used to fuel the plant. Ditto for wood chips and pelletized paper, although Fish believes Wisconsin’s forest products mills could step in and offset tough times in that industry.

A committee drawing on the expertise of a handful of state agencies, and chaired by Troy Runge, director of UW–Madison’s Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, will work to promote and foster the growth of biomass suppliers.

“With this plant as a major buyer, that helps create a sustainable market in Wisconsin,” Fish says. “A Wisconsin co-op delivering renewable fuel sources could feed the biomass energy network of tomorrow.”

The benefits of the Charter Street plant’s renovation reach right down to the neighborhood level.

While a biomass-fed Charter Street plant would require more visits from fuel-carrying trains, rail sidings to be built on right-of-ways east of the plant will keep the trains out of the way. Railcars waiting to be unloaded into storage bins on what is now the 115 N. Mills St. building — will sit on an overpass above Park Street in a railyard south of the Kohl Center.

“We’ll be able to unload without traffic even noticing,” Fish said. “Unloading of the cars will be done in a building, quiet and out of sight. The idea of dust blowing around is over.”