Skyrocketing gas prices force Power Plant to burn coal, oil to cut expenses
Published: Wednesday, February 7, 2001
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012 00:06
With the cost of gas on the rise, Ohio State is under pressure to use alternative fuel sources to heat university facilities.
“This is something nobody saw coming. We knew it would go up, but it ran up double what we expected,” said Wallace Giffen, director of utilities at McCracken Power Plant.
To limit the power plant’s reliance on costly natural gas, the Utilities Division decided in the first week of January to cut gas use and switch to cheaper oil and coal as substitutes.
“Part of our job in running the plant is using the most cost effective fuel. It was a basic economic decision here in utilities,” Giffen said.
If the university used gas, it would have spent $3.3 million in January alone, said Giffen. Supplementing the dependency on gas with the use of coal and oil as heating fuels, OSU spent about $2 million, an avoided cost of $1.3 million.
Heating campus primarily with gas is costly when January prices ranged from $10.87 to $14.27 per million British thermal units. Comparatively, coal cost only $2.13 per million Btu and oil cost $7.63 per million Btu, according to Giffen.
Giffen attributes rising gas prices to both high demand as a result of an unseasonably cold winter, and limited storage in local wells after high summer demand. Northern storage wells, which are usually filled for winter, were left with little supply, the result of fluctuating summer gas markets.
Giffen does not see the weaning off of gas as a continuing trend, however. “Future prices are a lot lower. They’re drilling more wells,” Giffen said.
Shifting the university’s gas dependency means alternating the use of the McCracken Power Plant’s six boilers. One boiler burns coal and gas, four others burn oil and gas and one boiler burns only gas. For January, about 60 percent of fuel used was oil, 30 percent was gas and 10 percent was coal. “After the first days of January, we had very little gas use,” Giffen said.
Giffen appears to be confident in the university’s switch to alternative fueling. “We’ve had a coal burner since the mid ’80s. The coal burner is a very clean burn of coal,” Giffen said.
Jean-Michel Guldmann, professor of city and regional planning, says pollution from coal burning is one of the most drastic of the heating fuels. “Generally, when you use more coal, you create more sulfur-dioxide. Clearly, burning coal is more negative. The bulk of pollutants from heating comes from coal,” Guldmann said.
Although expensive, the environmental benefits of natural gas are clear. “With natural gas, pollution is close to zero,” Guldmann said.
The low cost of oil makes it another logical alternative. Oil burning made up the majority of January’s fuel consumption. “It reached the point in January that it was cheaper to just burn oil,” Giffen said.
OSU’s Utilities Division hopes for even cleaner and efficient energy solutions. With some of the boilers dating back to the 1940’s, replacement options have been put on the table.
“We’re looking at ways of replacing the boilers. If you look at what we require for heat, the coal boilers are inefficient. They don’t meet modern environmental standards,” Giffen said. One remedy, a combination of electricity and steam, is being considered because it reduces greenhouse gases by 70 to 80 percent.