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Cornell power plant enjoying benefits of being off coal

Matt Richmond
Plant manager Tim Peer stands near Cornell University's new gas-powered turbine.

Since early 2011, Cornell University has been getting almost all of its heat and power from natural gas.

No longer do they have to truck in 65,000 tons of coal from Kentucky and West Virginia. No longer do they buy most of their power from the grid.

The $82 million transition to natural gas has shuttered the soot-covered corner of the plant where coal used to be turned into heat.

A new, natural gas-powered section, with its computerized emissions monitoring, shiny pipes and modern control room, feels like a break from the past as soon as you walk in.

Dirty business

"The new equipment tends to be more complicated, needs more care and attention," says plant manager Tim Peer. "Combusting coal is a very dirty process. It's a solid fuel, you got the ash removal, it's a very dirty business."

The Cornell plant is a combined heat and power plant. That means fuel - in Cornell's case natural gas - is used for both heating and powering the university. Exhaust from generating power is turned into steam that's used for heat.

About 86 percent of the fuel that goes in is turned into heat and power.  The transition has helped the university reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 28 percent.

Making the switch

The type of plant Cornell built is used mostly by municipalities, industry, and institutions, like universities or prisons, for generating their own power. But now that new emissions guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency may force the closure of 32 coal-powered plants, the use of natural gas for power could become more attractive.

The country's largest coal-power producer, American Electric Power, will shut down five of its coal plants because of the rules. Three will be converted to natural gas, and many others will be retrofitted with emissions reduction technology.

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