What would you do if you were a university administrator faced with two options for providing heat for your campus? On the one hand, you can adopt a plan that uses alternative energy (e.g., wind or solar) to generate the heat. On the other hand, you can upgrade an existing coal-fired plant to do so. Assume that the alternative energy route is significantly more expensive than the coal route, but that the coal option produces far greater greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than alternative energy.

The coal option has the advantage of being relatively cheap. However, it has the disadvantages of producing significant pollution and contributing to climate change, which seriously threatens the well-being of persons and ecosystems around the world. The alternative energy option has the advantage of not contributing to climate change. However, it has the disadvantage of being relatively expensive. Nonetheless, a choice must be made. Which option would you choose?

Administrators at Penn State currently face a similar choice. At present, the coal-fired plant on Burrowes Road provides most of the heat for the University Park campus. The university plans to upgrade the plant in the near future but has not decided whether to use coal, natural gas, alternative energy, or some other fuel source. For more information, see this article on upgrading the Burrowes coal-fired plant, as well as our other blog posts below.

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One Response to Should We Invest in Alternative Energy?


    Seems a natural gas approach would be most productive in the short to medium term, coupled with investigations into possible geothermal systems for feasible buildings.

    Natural gas is a growing fuel source being developed in Western PA (Marcellus Shale), further, it can be used in combination with the output from digesters used to produce biogas (methane). In addition to various crops and crop wastes from the local fields, the digesters can be fed with waste products from food, wood pulps, etc, generated across the campus and would reduce the overall GHG footprint of the waste stream from the campus.

    The upshot is that it would provide a few more jobs across the campus to maintain these different systems, tap into new natural gas systems being developed in Central, PA (thus also adding to the jobs profile in the region), reduce wasteflow out of the campus, possibly produce a useful fertilizer (from the wasteflow.) Developing an integrated biomass combined cycle would be worth considering here, in addition to efforts to increase geothermal and solar capacity across campus.

    Some interesting quotes worth considering:
    “A life-cycle comparison between the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from a nuclear plant and an equivalently sized gas-burning plant indicates that with the poorer uranium ores, below 0.002 per cent, the gas-fired plant comes out better, with lower overall carbon dioxide emissions. Life-cycle analysis done by the Öko-Institute of Germany estimates a carbon dioxide cost of 35 g/kWh. A natural gas co-generation system is even with the nuclear power/natural gas combination in terms of emissions, while being far cheaper to the consumer simply because of the three-fold better efficiency in delivering end-use energy. A cogeneration system based on biogas emits seven times less greenhouse gases in providing end-use energy compared to a nuclear power/natural gas combination.”

    Below is a link to an Öko-Institut e.V. report on various GHG ratios according to energy choices. Also, see charts in this document on pages 5 and 6 to understand the ratio of GHG savings according to various energy sources. http://www.oeko.de/publications/reports_studies/dok/659.php?id=&dokid=315&anzeige=det&ITitel1=&IAutor1=&ISchlagw1=&sortieren=&dokid=315

    For some other interesting comparisons, see the Modern Energy Review article by Kristin Schrader-Frechette

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