Around the turn of the century, Eastern Illinois University was amidst an ongoing conversation with the state legislature aimed at working out a solution for its rapidly failing coal steam plant. That facility, which opened in 1928, was a primarily coal-burning operation; two of its four boilers burned coal, while the backup boilers burned natural gas and fuel oil. With a replacement absolutely necessary to the future of the university and no financial support from the state or federal government, another solution became imperative.
Feasibility studies showed a cost of $75-150 million for a replacement coal facility, and coal’s ever-growing list of environmental downfalls had made it a less-than-attractive energy source. With those factors in mind, it became clear an alternative fuel source was the best option. A new biomass-burning facility, with a price tag in the neighborhood of $55 million, became the new plan.
Under the umbrella of an $80 million performance contract, ground was broken in 2009 for the new facility. The performance contract was awarded to Honeywell International in 2008. Eastern’s old steam plant burned its last coal on Dec. 14, 2010, and the grand opening of the new facility was celebrated on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011.
Eastern’s Renewable Energy Center also houses four boilers. Two boilers burn biomass — any biological material from wood chips to switchgrass —while the others burn natural gas with a fuel oil backup. EIU’s campus energy needs can be met by running any two of the four boilers.
The facility is based on gasification technology, which is a two-stage combustion process. In the first stage, fuel is heated to a high temperate in a low-oxygen environment, which creates synthetic natural gas. In the second stage, gas is captured and combined with additional oxygen to combust just like natural gas. In this two-stage process, there is a much lower incidence of carryover. It is a much cleaner burning process compared to coal burning, and the efficiency lost is only about 5 percent of the traditional natural gas process. Basically, it produces cleaner emissions for a small energy premium.
A unique feature of the facility is that one of the biomass boilers, a high-pressure unit, feeds into a back-pressure steam turbine to generate electricity as a byproduct. By doing this, the university gets its electricity in the neighborhood of two cents per kilowatt-hour as opposed to the university rate of seven cents or the traditional utility rate of 11 cents.
The plant is also designed for fuel flexibility through its gasifiers. Because it isn’t a direct combustion facility, it is a lot more fuel flexible. With a traditional combustion boiler, the fuel sources must generally be the same in moisture, size, density, and so on. With these gasifiers, boilers are able to accept a lot more variation in their fuel sources.
The Renewable Energy Center will undoubtedly reduce EIU’s carbon footprint. The new steam plant is expected to result in an 80 percent reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions. Coal burning is simply not as environmentally friendly as Eastern’s current options.
While any fuel source is carbon-neutral over a long enough period of time, coal’s 3 million-year cycle dwarfs the 30-year cycle of wood chips, which is our primary fuel this year. Other growable sources could have a one-year cycle — essentially, a non-renewable energy source is being replaced with a renewable one. While no single fuel source can replace coal, EIU is committed to replacing it with as many as it takes.
Of course, there are also the benefits of having a new facility as opposed to an outdated one. For instance, the old plant featured some original equipment from over 80 years ago. With parts out of production, EIU was forced to manufacture replacement parts when they became necessary — a time-consuming endeavor that was also costly, because any stoppage of the coal-burning boilers necessitated the use of the more expensive natural gas units.
The Renewable Energy Center is registered under the United States Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) new construction program. It is the first solid fuel power plant to be registered with USGBC and received certification at the Platinum level. USGBC has four levels of certification — Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.