Old King Coal: University of Iowa making slow progress on its renewable energy agenda

The UI Power Plant on Burlington Street -- photo by Adam Burke
The University of Iowa Main Power Plant on Burlington Street — photo by Adam Burke

I’m standing on the Burlington Street sidewalk, opposite the University of Iowa Main Power Plant downtown, waiting. I scan the building: a complicated assemblage of cylinders and squares, brick and vinyl, old and new. To keep up with the growing university, the plant made several additions since its construction in 1927, and now the original Romanesque architecture stands in contrast to its contemporary counterparts.

At exactly 1 p.m., I hear it. The whistle starts as a whisper and then swells to a deafening cry. Clouds of thick, white steam seethe from a pipe, and for 20 seconds the whistle screeches throughout town. Then, winding down, the whistle fades. The rush of steam slows. Silence.

Initially, this whistle was a timekeeper for Iowa City, blaring at four intervals daily, marking the beginning, middle and end of work. Today, the whistle is a relic of the past: The need for it is gone, but the tradition has remained. Staff members still perform the task manually, pressing a button from inside the plant.

The whistle is yet another layer of Iowa City’s composition. How many notice it? Know where it comes from? Question its necessity? I wonder if the same can be asked about the power plant. How many see it driving by? Know what kind of fuel it burns? Question its necessity today? Will it, too, become a relic?

With two solid fuel boilers and two natural gas boilers, the University of Iowa Main Power Plant burns roughly 93,000 tons of coal, 261 million cubic feet of natural gas and 36,000 tons of biomass each year to generate steam—some of which creates the loud whistle heard in Iowa City throughout the day. In a process called cogeneration, this steam passes through turbines to create electricity—enough to supply between 20 and 30 percent of the university’s electric power—before it is sent through underground tunnels to campus, where it is used for heating and air conditioning, cooking and sterilizing.

A 2013 Iowa City sustainability assessment revealed that the UI Power Plant emitted 211,158 metric tons of carbon dioxide in Iowa City in 2011, about 4,655 times the emissions of the average area household. But the power plant only accounts for part of the university’s coal use: MidAmerican Energy generates power for most of the school’s electrical needs at coal-fired power plants.

Coal is one of the greatest contributors to global warming: It has the highest carbon content of any fossil fuel, and, according to the International Energy Agency, coal is responsible for 43 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions globally.

The University of Iowa Power Plant burns 93,000 tons of coal annually. If that was piled on the 50-yard line at Kinnick Stadium, the mount would be over 100 feet tall, cover the playing field and extend into the stands. And, that's only a fraction of the university's coal use: The power plant only generates 20-30 percent of the UI's energy. -- image by Adam Burke
The University of Iowa Power Plant burns 93,000 tons of coal annually. If that was piled on the 50-yard line at Kinnick Stadium, the mount would be over 100 feet tall, cover the playing field and extend into the stands. And, that’s only a fraction of the university’s coal use: The power plant only generates 20-30 percent of the UI’s energy. — image by Adam Burke

In addition to warming the planet, air pollution from coal is linked to a long list of health problems: asthma, stunted lung development, COPD, heart attack, stroke, coronary heart disease, cancer, neurological disorders—all of which disproportionately affect low-income individuals and minorities. In a recent report published by the World Health Organization, one in eight deaths worldwide were due to air pollution exposure, making it the “single largest environmental health risk.”

Particulate matter emitted from coal plants are composed of minute toxins that enter directly into the bloodstream when inhaled. This past December, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued a pollution warning for Iowa City due to high concentrations of fine particulates, which often occurs in winter months when weather conditions limit pollution dispersal. The agency advised that residents “with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children limit prolonged outdoor exertion until air quality conditions improve.”

According to Maureen McCue, a physician and founder of the University of Iowa Global Health Studies Program, evidence suggests that coal pollution exacerbates even more illnesses, like obesity and diabetes, but drawing conclusions is extremely difficult due to limited health data and the presence of other airborne pollutants released from vehicles and farming equipment, CAFOs and other industries. And with a transient community like Iowa City, she said, determining the long-term health effects of the UI Power Plant is nearly impossible.

In addition to the detriments of burning coal, mining for this fossil fuel is also harmful. Surface mining, one of the most visible forms of environmental degradation, clears off entire mountaintops and destroys thousands of acres of forest. River Trading Company supplies the University of Iowa with coal extracted from underground mines in Illinois and Colorado. In individual interviews, Ferman Milster, the school’s principal engineer for the UI Office of Sustainability, and Ben Anderson, the Power Plant manager, both noted that mountaintop removal was forbidden in their contract.

Even so, other methods of mining are similarly destructive. Underground mines, for example, are left to collapse once coal has been removed, and they are a major source of methane—a greenhouse gas that warms the planet 20 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. In 2012, the EPA reported that underground mining in the United States emitted 1,295,000 metric tons of methane. Furthermore, while the university claims that it wants nothing to do with mountaintop removal, it nevertheless supports a company that does: River Trading is set to profit from a $7 billion deal that will export 9 million tons of Appalachian coal from West Virginia and Kentucky to India over the next 25 years.

After mining, the transportation of coal also poses risks. Around 60 percent of coal in the United States is, at one time or another, shipped by rail. BNSF Railway, the second largest freight railroad company in the United States, estimates that a single train car can lose 500 pounds of fugitive coal dust en route to its destination, polluting the air and water and contributing to health problems along the way. The UI Power Plant’s coal, brought in Monday through Friday as needed, completes its journey by truck.

After coal has been burned, what remains is coal ash, a waste product containing high concentrations of toxins such as lead, arsenic and mercury that were pulled out of the smoke by pollution control technologies. Despite the health implications (EPA records show that people living within a mile of coal ash disposal sites are more likely to develop cancer) and numerous spills across the country (this February, 80,000 tons of coal ash spilled out of a storage lagoon in North Carolina), the EPA does not regulate its disposal and has only proposed rules.

While some states require inspections of coal ash disposal sites, Iowa’s standards are extremely lenient—so much so that other states come here to dump. This winter in Muscatine, coal ash was even applied to roads to melt snow. The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa dump their coal ash in an unlined, abandoned limestone quarry in Waterloo, and the University of Iowa alone disposes of 15,000 to 17,000 tons of the toxic material each year. Monitoring wells used to test water quality were voluntarily added to the site, and in a 2011 press release, the three universities reported that an independent test revealed “levels of the sampled constituents all well below state and federal standards.”

Photo by Adam Burke
Photo by Adam Burke

So, what’s more naïve: demanding that the university stop burning coal, or continuing to burn it?

In 2011, a student organization called the Sierra Student Coalition campaigned to stop the University of Iowa’s coal use by 2020—a drastic step further than the school’s current goal of achieving 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020. To raise awareness, the group held screenings, hosted plant tours and stood on campus asking passersby to lift 16-pound buckets of coal and 4-pound buckets of oat hulls—the average amount of fuel burned per day, per student at Iowa. The group created a petition, collected over 3,000 signatures and presented their appeal to President Sally Mason. According to Zach Carter, a student who spearheaded the campaign, Mason responded by saying the university’s “top priority is education.”

Not much changed as a result. With less than six years to go, the University of Iowa is still working toward its original 2020 objective. According to Anderson, the university’s renewable energy use is at 12 percent right now. Most of that energy comes in the form of oat hulls, a cereal byproduct purchased from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids.

And the University of Iowa plans on burning more biomass—organic matter used for fuel—as its main strategy for reaching 40 percent renewable energy. Milster explained that biomass is carbon neutral: Theoretically, since plants sequester carbon dioxide while growing, they release no additional carbon dioxide when burned. And, unlike fossil fuels, they quickly regenerate. Besides oat hulls, other potential forms of biomass include expired corn seeds, poplar wood chips and switchgrass.

Between 2015 and 2016, the university will grow 2,500 acres of Miscanthus x giganteus, a non-native perennial grass that produces a woody stalk. The crops will be planted near Muscatine County on marginal land, managed by a farmer, harvested, processed and co-fired with coal. This alone will bump the university to 25 percent of its 2020 target.

But even this has problems: Biomass, like coal, emits particulate matter, adding to the ever-increasing inventory of ambient pollution. The American Lung Association doesn’t support the combustion of biomass for producing electricity, because, without proper pollution controls, biomass contributes to some of the same health problems as coal—asthma, respiratory failure, cancer. And, though biomass is touted as a clean fuel source, controversy remains over just how carbon neutral the process actually is and just how many pollutants it actually emits—especially when burning trees. Furthermore, raising energy crops like Miscanthus requires other inputs for growing, harvesting, transporting, processing and disposing of waste, racking up fossil fuel emissions and agricultural pollutants along the way.

“The takeaway message is we need to stop burning things,” McCue said.

Wind and solar energy remain as potential alternatives to coal. The University of Iowa operates a few small-scale projects—an electric vehicle charging station, a solar roof on the Cambus Maintenance Facility and a 2.4 kW wind turbine—but they’re largely symbolic, signifying that the university is working on it.

“There’s a practical and regulatory barrier [to wind and solar],” Milster explained when asked why such little progress has been made. As a nonprofit, the university can’t take advantage of tax credits, and as such, setting up wind and solar on campus isn’t cost competitive with what the university can buy.

With so many obstacles and excuses to maintain the status quo, eliminating coal probably won’t happen any time soon. But waiting much longer doesn’t seem like an option, either, when global temperatures are projected to increase if we continue consuming fossil fuels, business as usual. And if universities won’t take the lead, who will?

“There’s a sense that the university could do more,” McCue said. And that the university, which has a commitment to students as well as an interest in the future wellbeing of Iowa City, should do more—despite the many hurdles and despite the bottom line.

“The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of rocks,” she said. “It ended because they found a better way.”

Erica Blair is a graduate of the University of Iowa and received a BFA in Intermedia. She lives in Iowa City and works at the Salvage Barn.