Energy Plant FAQs
The plant does not currently produce power. However, a project to install steam turbines within the plant was recently approved for design. These turbines will reduce energy costs and the carbon footprint of the university significantly.
The primary fuel at the plant is woody biomass sourced from the waste streams of the local wood products manufacturing industry. Natural gas is used as a backup during maintenance periods and peak loads. Annually, 90-95% of the steam produced comes from biomass.
Most of the wood used at the plant comes from regional lumber mills, who need to address the waste generated from the manufacturing process. A variety of manufacturers looking to be more environmentally friendly in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon also supply fuel to the plant, ranging from pallet manufacturers to wineries.
There has been debate in recent years on if biomass fuel can be considered renewable. The use of biomass has grown around the world as governments and companies shift away from fossil fuels. Issues arise with the scale of the fuel needed and if reforestation practices are put in place. For power plants capable of supporting cities, the demand for fuel is incredible and forests often cannot grow fast enough to meet that demand. Some extreme examples require biomass fuel to be shipped thousands of miles to the power plant. The debate isn’t if biomass is carbon neutral, it’s whether the use of biomass mitigates climate change within the next few decades.
In the long-term, biomass fuel is carbon neutral since the carbon sequestered during its growth is released during combustion. Many factors increase carbon emissions when utilizing biomass fuel such as the distance between the fuel source and energy plant, reforestation practices, and any emissions from processing. So long as forests are replanted after harvesting, there is a carbon “payback” time where the released carbon is sequestered back into the forest. When the use of biomass fuel increases on a global scale, this payback period is too long.
The majority of the biomass fuel used at U of I is sourced within twenty miles of the energy plant and no trees are chipped to supply the energy plant with fuel. The lumber mills near the university produce millions of board feet annually, which generates significant amounts of wood chip waste and U of I only purchases waste generated from normal business operations. This provides a unique opportunity for both the university to acquire a renewable energy source and the companies to address the waste generated. The trees that are harvested are replanted afterwards and companies use a selective cutting practice instead of clear cutting. Selective harvesting improves overall forest health by controlling undergrowth and other factors that contribute to catastrophic wild fires.
An average of 0.5 percent of the wood chips by weight is left after combustion. Emissions equipment is used to remove the ash before the exhaust leaves the stack. The ash is collected and stored on campus for the Agriculture Department to use as fertilizer. Since the wood boiler was installed, 100% of the ash generated has been used on campus.
Currently, the energy plant only produces heating and cooling energy. Once the turbine project is complete, power will be generated on campus using biomass, reducing the university’s dependence on fossil fuel derived power from the utility.
Technologies such as solar photovoltic (PV) have not been implemented on a campus wide scale yet. However, staff at the Sustainability Center (UISC) and UES have been working on bringing PV to campus. The solar powered streetlights north of the Student Recreation Center are a first step, and there are multiple EV charging stations around campus. A project is currently underway to bring rooftop PV arrays to campus once funding is secured.
The curved ridges going up the exhaust stack are designed to protect the stack from high winds. Besides adding structural rigidity, the shape also redirects winds upwards, which helps carry exhaust up and away from the area.
Many fan coils across campus are setup in what’s called a “two-pipe” system. These systems only have one supply line and one return line, which means the fan coil can either provide heating or cooling, but not both. Buildings are switched between heating and cooling modes manually in the spring and fall, which takes time. If the weather changes suddenly in these seasons, occupants can become uncomfortable until conditions return to normal.
The Energy Plant Manager owns and sets up the skeletons. Their outfits change throughout the year, so be sure to check them out!
The staff at the energy plant is always willing to provide tours and answer questions about the plant. Individual tours are possible, but groups are preferred. There are many courses offered on campus that have regular tours of the plant including engineering, forest management, business, and many others. If you’re interested in setting up a tour please contact the Steam Plant Supervisor, Karrie May, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any maintenance issue or concern should be directed to Facilities at 208-885-6246 or email@example.com.