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The University That Runs on Oats

University campuses can be the size of small cities–and require the same amount of energy. That's why they're leading the way in energy innovation.

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The University of Iowa burns oat hulls with coal to produce a fuel mix that powers many of its campus facilities.(Brian Ach/AP Images for Quaker Oats)

The campuses of many state universities—with their miles of research laboratories and sports facilities to power, and tens of thousands of students to house—can sometimes resemble a small city. They can require as much energy to run as a small city, as well. Over the past decade, colleges and universities across the country have become concerned about their environmental footprint, and today they are leading the way in developing innovative approaches to rethinking energy infrastructure. Kent State University is installing nearly 45,000 square feet of solar panels on its athletic complex, while Princeton's power plant can now switch to run on biodiesel.

In many cases, students have been the ones instigating these campus changes, pushing their administrators to make commitments to reduce fossil-fuel emissions or to set a goal of becoming carbon neutral. For their part, schools are interested in finding energy savings and achieving greater efficiency. As climate change continues to alter energy needs and alternative fuel sources become more widely accepted, towns and institutions may find themselves drawing lessons from the way college campuses are meeting their energy goals.

 

The University of Iowa's Biomass Fuel project

One afternoon about 10 years ago, the Quaker Oats processing facility in Cedar Rapids contacted administrators at the University of Iowa. The oatmeal, granola, and cereal manufacturer generates thousands of tons of oat hulls each year, and it wanted to know if the university was interested in purchasing the waste product—significantly cheaper than coal—to use as a fuel in its campus power plant.

After spending $1 million on two years of testing and other preliminary work, U of I started processing oat hulls in 2003, combining them with coal and burning the mix as fuel. The deal with Quaker Oats has saved the school up to a half-million dollars each year, depending on the market price of coal. The institution plans to quadruple the amount of biomass it uses as a fuel by 2020, with a goal of making it 40 percent of the fuel mix. 

 

"One of the big themes is, let's get our energy local," says Ferman Milster, principal engineer for renewables at the university's Office of Sustainability. He estimates that the university's goal of upping its local biomass purchases could return about $6 million annually to the local economy.

This change in U of I's energy infrastructure was made easier by the school's district energy system—a centralized boiler that delivers heating and cooling services to the campus. Now common on college campuses, these utilities are still found in some municipalities, often dating to the early 20th century, when towns were built around a dense urban core. It's far less common today to see towns installing the same infrastructure. Recently, however, the small town of West Union, Iowa, decided to give it a try, investing in a district energy system that will tap geothermal energy to lower heating and cooling costs for downtown businesses. The $2.5 million project is a collaborative effort, funded by grants from EPA, state government, and the U.S. Energy Department. 

The University of New Hampshire's Eco-Line

Trash powers the University of New Hampshire's heating, cooling, and electricity-generation system. Rather than relying on natural gas, the school sources over 60 percent of its fuel from a landfill about 13 miles away. But while harnessing the methane-based gas emitted as trash biodegrades has helped UNH meet its sustainability goals, the move hasn't delivered a big financial payoff for the university.

 

"The market price for natural gas has dropped substantially," says Paul Chamberlin, associate vice president for facilities, so the savings have been less than UNH expected when the line was completed in 2009. The university utility still aims to recoup the cost of the $49 million investment within 10 years by selling renewable energy certificates through an EPA program and by charging campus buildings for their energy use.

Thanks to clean-air regulations, most landfills are already capturing landfill gas. But according to Chamberlin, that's not necessarily a useful fuel source for many municipalities. The University of New Hampshire, like many education institutions and some big business and manufacturing facilities, has a cogeneration plant: a facility that both heats water for heating and cooling buildings and also captures waste heat to generate electricity. It's a hugely efficient process that makes renewables an attractive investment. But in more sprawling suburban communities, installing such a system doesn't make much sense.

The University of California (San Diego) Micro-grid

During a region-wide blackout in 2011, the lights at the University of California (San Diego) stayed on. Thanks to its campus microgrid, UCSD has achieved near self-sufficiency in energy generation and distribution, lowered energy costs, made energy provision more reliable, and proven that computerized management can easily integrate new sources of energy—such as solar panels—into a utility grid.

"It's almost like plug and play. You decide what you want to feed in in terms of alternative energy sources, and as long as you put in this advanced micro-grid that can manage [energy] and modulate when you use it, it becomes a very effective tool," says Gary Matthews, vice chancellor for resource management and planning. 

The UC San Diego micro-grid has evolved over time. When the campus was under construction in the 1960s, university leaders decided to manage buildings as a system, rather than connecting them individually to the local power grid. About 12 years ago, the university added a cogeneration plant. Today, some 200 energy meters monitor energy in individual buildings, and a computerized management system allows facilities staff to fine-tune energy delivery depending on use patterns. Researchers and corporations are closely watching the electric grid, which has become a living demonstration of how to manage a diverse energy mix that includes solar panels, fuels cells, and electric-car charging stations. 

The micro-grid saves hundreds of thousands of dollars each month, according to the university, and protects laboratory and hospital space from the threat of power outages. Although it's expensive to install an energy-management system this comprehensive, utility companies nationwide are starting to invest in household 'smart' meters they hope will make energy delivery more responsive to demand.

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