Eastern Illinois University officials recently announced plans to move forward with construction of a Renewable Energy Center on the east side of campus.
The result will be an economical and ecologically friendly answer to Eastern's critical power needs, made necessary by the deterioration of the university's current coal-fired power plant. Built circa 1925, the plant has been plagued by persistent equipment failures and replacement parts have been difficult, if not impossible, to find due to the age of the equipment.
In an effort to share information and answer questions about the new facility, a series of three informational meetings have been scheduled: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12, Life Science Building, Room 3080, EIU campus; 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 14, Charleston/Mattoon Room (third floor), MLK Jr. Union, EIU campus; and 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17, Charleston Public Library, Rotary Room A.
The public is invited to any or all of these meetings, where campus officials plan to present the concept of the new center and respond to all questions.
Plans have groundbreaking scheduled to take place in Spring 2009, with a plant "commissioning" in Fall 2010. The new construction will occupy existing university property located near the intersection of 18th Street (Illinois Route 130) and Edgar Drive.
In short, the new Renewable Energy Center is a "biomass gasifier" that will supply the university's heating and cooling needs by burning plant matter. Eastern will be permitted to burn two-inch virgin, or non-treated, wood chips obtained as by-products from the lumber industry.
While considering alternatives to the old steam plant, university officials factored in campus needs, as well as environmental impact. The location of the Renewable Energy Center along Illinois 130 -- a site chosen in accordance with Eastern's Campus Master Plan -- will allow easy access to semitrailers hauling product, while keeping the heavy vehicles off the narrow roads in the center of campus.
According to Gary Reed, director of EIU's Facilities Planning and Management, the Renewable Energy Center will normally receive four to five semitrailers a day during normal business hours (between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays). There may be additional trucks on Fridays as the university prepares accordingly for the energy needs of the coming weekend.
The wood chips being delivered will be much more "clean burning" than the coal used currently, thus reducing the overall air emissions being released into the environment. Reed said that wood gasification is similar in many respects to a gas furnace in most homes, and that area residents need not worry about odors or smoke like those associated with a regular wood stove.
Ash from the burns will be collected in closed dumpsters at a rate of about one cubic yard in a 24-hour period. According to Reed, the university is looking into uses for the ash, which is high in potash and could possibly be used as fertilizer.
"EIU is no stranger to initiating environmentally friendly projects," Reed said. "Since 1995, the university has reduced its consumption of electricity, fuels and water by more than 30 percent. We were extremely proud when the 93rd Illinois General Assembly recognized Eastern as the university having the lowest energy cost per square foot among all Illinois public universities."
Aesthetically speaking, the center will sit 125 feet west of Illinois 130. The tallest object on the project will be an approximately 120-foot-high bucket elevator, responsible for loading wood chips into the fuel silo. The wood gasifier chimney will stand at approximately 50 feet. (For comparison purposes, Eastern's water tower south of Old Main is 135 feet tall.)
According to Reed, plant operation will be neighborhood-friendly -- quiet with low light, especially during the evening hours. "Treescape" will be maintained to soften the development and blend into the neighborhood environment as well as possible.
The projected cost of Eastern's Renewable Energy Center represents approximately half of the roughly $80 million Eastern intends to spend on renovations and new energy conservation projects identified through a campus-wide audit conducted by Honeywell International. Measures identified by Honeywell are designed to be self-funded with energy savings, and Honeywell guarantees that Eastern will have utility and/or operational cost savings at least equal to the costs of financing the conservation projects.
In addition to the power plant, the audit examined electrical upgrades, upgrades to the university's electrical grid connection and possibilities for wind energy generation.
As a result, Eastern is also planning to construct a small wind farm -- composed of three 1.5 megawatt General Electric wind turbines -- somewhere near the Charleston community. Exact locations have not yet been announced, pending ongoing discussions, Reed said.