Letter to the Editor: UI Power Plant Representative responds to Old King Coal

UI Power Plant
The UI Power Plant, located on Burlington Street in downtown Iowa City. — photo by Charles Kremenak
By Daniel Johnson-O’Mara

I read with interest your article in the April 16 issue about the role King Coal plays at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Technical controls and programming are just a part of the work I do there.

The Power Plant provides heat and cooling to over 14,000 employees, 30,000 students and thousands of patients and visitors. Over five miles of steam tunnels exist on both sides of the river, a huge infrastructure by any measure, supported by only a few dozen employees.

We co-generate electricity to the tune of about 25 MW and have added gas turbines to provide an additional 8 MW. This winter’s cold was particularly tough to beat back and we came close to providing nearly a half million pounds of steam an hour on some days. Half a million … I can tell you right now there is no quick alternative that can provide that much energy reliably and consistently, 24/7, 365.

The Power Plant is burning alternative fuels like oat hulls and wood chips successfully and expanding those greener efforts. Some people would have us switch to all natural gas. But that market is extremely volatile and we saw our natural gas prices increase 1000 percent during this cold winter. You read that right — 1000 percent. That would be like your gasoline prices swinging from $3 a gallon to $30 a gallon and back.

How would you like to budget that? Just switching to natural gas is not the answer. To be at the mercy of one fuel is highly risky.

To completely stop burning anything at all and reduce CO2 emissions to zero cannot happen overnight. That would require hundreds of acres of solar panels and wind generators and miles of connecting transmission lines to heat these tea kettles we call boilers. Love to see it, though.

The Power Plant staff is committed to cleaner combustion, cleaner emissions and cheaper fuels. Believe me, it is not us holding things back. It is not President Mason holding things back. It is reality and political paralysis. The goal of reducing oil and coal usage should have started years ago.

On most clear days in Iowa City, I challenge you to tell which coal boiler is on. That’s how clean our emissions are and we are proud of that.

We share your concerns. We live here, too, on the very same planet and love it as much as you. And Iowa City, a great place to work and live.

We are doing the best we can and a lot of people appreciate it yet never know we’re here or how hard we work to protect them and keep them safe.

Daniel Johnson-O’Mara
University of Iowa Power Plant