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Our Energy Future


On Thursday, September 12, 2013, Penn State held a forum entitled “Our Energy Future.” There were two goals for this forum. One was to provide an overview of Penn State’s energy plans for the near and long term future, including an overview of the University Park campus’ energy use and related greenhouse gas mitigation strategy. The other was to provide an update on the conversion of the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas and the route of the new gas pipeline through University Park. Rob Cooper, P.E., Director of Energy and Engineering, and Paul Moser, Superintendent, Steam Services, Penn State Office of Physical Plant, provided an overview, and then took questions and answers. As part of this question and answer period, they committed to providing a written version of their responses. The questions below are those raised by audience members, and the answers are those provided by Mr. Cooper and Mr. Moser, with additional details added for clarity.

Pages from the pdf handout:

Combined Heat and Power Energy and CO2 Savings Potential

Columbia's On-Campus Pipeline Route

Columbia's On-Campus Pipeline Route (Map)

Beyond 2020 (GHG Emissions)

GHG Emissions Reduction Strategies

Environmental Group Support for Combined Heat & Power

Electric Consumption & Campus Gross Square Feet (Graph)

Steam Plants Total MMBTU & Campus Gross Square Feet (Graph)

Download the pdf of all of the handouts here.  You can also download the PowerPoint presentation.

Watch the slideshow from the presentation below.


Download the Pipeline Public Awareness document.

Questions and Responses

The questions and responses have been arranged by category to make it easier to follow. The categories are as follows:

1.      Current Plant Operation

2.      Proposed Combined Heat and Power Conversion Project

3.      Other Alternatives and Issues Considered

4.      Future Energy Considerations

5.      Process Considerations

Download the Pipeline Public Awareness document.


1. Current Plant Operation:

How is the efficiency of the power plant calculated? Does the input count the energy of the fuels and the energy going in to process them into useful energy?
The efficiency is calculated by taking the energy produced at the plant (steam and electricity) divided by the energy consumed at the plant (natural gas, coal, and fuel oil) all converted to similar units (BTUs).

The ~70% efficiency quoted for the PSU combines system is mainly heat. The ultimate thermodynamic efficiency of a pure heat system is essentially 100%. The quoted utility plant efficiency of 33% is entirely electrical. The ultimate thermodynamic efficiency of electrical generation with a room temperature cold reservoir is much less than 100%. Is this a legitimate comparison?
We believe that “useful energy out divided by energy in” is absolutely a legitimate way to quote the efficiency of our power plant.

Is plant operation driven by electrical or thermal demand and is there any way to store energy when an excess of electrical or thermal energy exists?
The plants are driven by the thermal demand on campus.

At the West Campus Steam Plant, the electricity produced is a byproduct of the steam that is produced. High pressure steam operates turbines that produce electricity. Low pressure steam at the outlet of the turbines is sent to campus to heat the buildings. There is currently no way to store this energy; the plant simply responds to the heating needs of campus.

At present, is the West Campus Steam Plant more efficient than the East Campus Steam Plant, and as such, the primary plant for that reason?
The East Campus and West Campus Steam Plants work differently. They are both examples of combined heat and power. The West Campus Steam Plant operates in the 70% efficiency range, even firing on coal. Switching to natural gas will decrease our carbon emissions by almost 50%. The East Campus Steam Plant operates at about 70% efficiency. However, the East Campus Steam Plant is not the primary plant because it cannot provide adequate steam to serve all of campus thermal needs on the coldest days; it is prohibitively costly to retrofit the steam system to have the East Campus Steam Plant as the primary plant.

The graphic of the campus steam distribution loop appeared as though it bypassed the North and Pollock residence hall complexes. Was this omitted for clarity?
No. We serve all of those buildings with steam. The map simply shows the major distribution lines.

How do you normalize your consumption temperature? Square footage?
Our data is not normalized on temperature or square footage.

2. Proposed Combined Heat and Power Conversion Project:

What are the initial costs of the natural gas pipeline? Is there a detailed budget breakdown open for the general public?
During the forum, we noted that the 30 year negotiated agreement with Columbia for the gasline is a confidential agreement. However, the overall West Campus Steam Plant conversion project budget of $57.3 million includes the following elements:

·         $17.4 million for the natural gas pipeline

·         $35.9 million for the renovations at the West Campus Steam Plant

·         $4 million for the new Steam Services Building

Will the equipment that is installed be the newest, most efficient equipment available and recognized by DEP and DER?
The boilers planned for installation at Penn State will have low-NOx (oxides of nitrogen emissions) burners. This project will reduce NOx emissions by about 90%. In analyzing boiler options, low-NOx burners rather than ultra-low-NOx burners were chosen, both of which meet air-quality standard requirements, because an analysis showed that ultra-low-NOx burners tend to be less stable along the entire range of operations and require more energy consumption to operate than the low-NOx burners. We know these boilers will operate at lower than peak capacity the majority of the time requiring good operation at reduced loads. And finally the ultra-low NOx burners require a larger footprint than is available. In summary, Ultra Low-NOx burners are not a good burner selection for our application.

Was one reason for the low vs. ultra decisions in part because of space considerations in the existing building?
Space was one reason, and burner turndown ratio and efficiency also played a part in the decision.

Can you compare the before and after emissions (coal vs. gas)?
The proposed changes to the West Campus Steam Plant by switching from coal to natural gas will reduce the University’s emissions as follow:

Emissions Reductions from Coal to Natural Gas


Pollutant (tons)












Sulfur Dioxide






Carbon Monoxide












Nitrous Oxide






Non-methane VOCs


















Total HAPs






(Based on 2009 coal use of 73,333 tons, 2009 Reported Emissions, Projected Emissions for the equivalent value of Natural Gas)



Do the greenhouse gas reductions from switching to natural gas factor in the methane released in the fracking process? Has the complete life cycle/greenhouse gas footprint of fracked shale gas been considered in the CO2 emissions? Was the controversy and known issues with fracked gas a consideration in PSU’s decision? Does the analysis claiming improved GHG impact the gas conversion include the GH impacts of methane leakage during extraction and distribution, including analysis of current uncertainties in the actual magnitude of these emissions?
No. Only greenhouse gases produced at the plant have been factored into the analysis.

Penn State has been watching the debate. We are aware of different papers, including a paper announced a year and a half ago that looked at releases from the well. This paper concluded that when factoring in the releases that the well had from unconventional or fracking operations, gas actually burns dirtier than coal. Shortly after that, we learned about another paper that completely refuted the first paper. Since then, there have been a number of environmental agencies who’ve released evaluations that also refute the first paper’s conclusions. Penn State will follow this debate as it continues.

David Yoxtheimer, extension specialist for the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, noted that the natural greenhouse gas (GHG) released from the fracturing process is primarily methane, which is approximately 25 times more potent as a GHG as compared to carbon dioxide. When the unaccounted for gas or fugitive emissions goes above 3%, methane’s advantage over coal is undermined. Natural gas emits approximately 45% lower CO2 emissions, but the methane itself is a more potent GHG. On a national level, the inventory shows that the fugitive emissions on the gross scale are around 2-2.5%, but that science is always being refined. If the fracking process can continue to release below 3% fugitive emissions, there still is an advantage of using natural gas over coal.

Post meeting note: EPA recently refined its fugitive emissions to 1.2% (well to burner tip) a 50% reduction from the 2.4% that was reported earlier. A paper came out earlier this year and does a life cycle assessment that concludes the carbon footprint of Marcellus gas is 53% lower than coal when considering the full life cycle of well drilling, fracturing, processing, distribution and combustion. The article can be found at

What about radon stack emissions?
Radon stack emissions are not regulated by DEP or the EPA, and are not considered in the analysis or DEP permit submission.

One of the concerns with natural gas from shale formations is the emissions of radon, the kind one might find in the basement of their home. There was a study done by an independent consultant who raised an alarm statistic about radon in shale gas formations. The USGS released a study that followed showing the assumptions made in the consultant’s study was exaggerated.

Will the particulate matter (of all sizes) of particles be greatly reduced? Will the exhaust be filtered?
Yes. All particulate matter will be reduced. The exhaust is not filtered.

Will the high stack be removed? Will the bag room be removed?
Yes. All equipment and structures on the north side of the West Campus Steam Plant that are necessary for ash and coal hauling is planned to be removed, including the bag house and existing stack. The site will be used to create a new building to consolidate office space from various places within the steam plant. The new building will also provide classroom space.

Will sound be greatly reduced?
Yes. Noise generated at the plant will be reduced.

The noise from ash handling equipment that cycles on and off about every 45 seconds will be eliminated. And coal handling equipment noise from delivery trucks and front end loaders will be eliminated.

Where will the 25,000 gallon diesel tanks be located?
There will be two above ground 25,000 gallon diesel fuel tanks that will be located adjacent to one another inside the WCSP compound. These fuel tanks will provide a backup source of energy. They are steel tanks with double-walled construction and spill containment. The tanks will be equipped with leak detection devices. PSU tank filling procedures require that a PSU employee knowledgeable with the operation be present during the entire filling process.


3. Other Alternatives and Issues Considered:

Would you consider rethinking aspects of the WCSP conversion – for example, the ratio of gas combustion between West and East plants? If Penn State were granted a one-year extension by EPA of the MACT limits? What about a 2-3 year extension?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) originally promulgated Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rules in 2004. EPA subsequently delayed enactment of these rules three times over the last 8 years. At this point, the proposed regulations have become final and compliance is required by January 2016.

We don’t believe that the EPA regulations allow for any more than a one-year extension. And while many options and energy conversion technologies were considered as alternatives, the selected option to convert the WCSP from burning coal to burning gas is the best option to allow PSU to be compliant by January 31, 2016.

Why did PSU not choose to build a new power plant close to the Columbia Gas access point on Porter Road? Given that steam tunnels already permeate campus, a new plant could save nearly all of the cost of putting a gas pipeline through campus.
It’s very expensive to move the west plant to the east plant, more than double the cost of a project at the West Campus Steam Plant.

The east campus steam plant was built as a peaking plant. It was never built to be the primary source of steam for campus so the existing steam distribution system is not adequate to deliver all steam (both low and high pressure) from the east side of campus.

So, while a new power plant could be built on the east side of campus, the extra cost was not justifiable and the scope would have made meeting the compliance deadline of January 2016 much more difficult or impossible to achieve.

Heating with coal was described as more expensive than gas. Did this analysis include costs of a hedged-price long-term contract, or is it exposed to unknown market fluctuations? The same distribution constraints that have led to the exceptionally low current prices of gas could in future contribute instead to price increases.
Penn State does not have a contract with Columbia Gas for future gas supplies. The University will be subject to future market conditions going forward.

The options analysis included a sensitivity analysis for the cost of fuels.

Is there a reduction in workforce from the coal to gas conversion?
We currently have six employees whose job is to handle coal and ash 24/7. They put coal into the plant and take ashes out of the plant; this is a manual process with equipment involved. These jobs will go away. However, there are new job positions that we think we will need in the conversion from coal to gas that we are creating now. Of the six positions that will be eliminated, we think there’s at least three if not more that will stay, but they will have different job descriptions. These employees know about this upcoming change.

This is a conversion process that is going to take several years. We have a January 2016 compliance date and we expect to train our employees to handle the jobs that we will need. We do not expect to lose any employees in this process because we expect some retirements in this time frame.


4. Future Energy Considerations:

Why wait until 2020 to address 2050 GHG emission goal?
Penn State has a short term GHG reduction plan to lower our greenhouse gas emission by 35% by 2020 ( In analyzing the options available to us on a cost per ton of GHG reduction, both energy conservation and biomass are less expensive to implement than solar photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal. We expect solar technology to improve, and as it does, we will start to add it into Penn State’s portfolio. For now, however, our GHG reduction efforts will be anchored with continued conservation efforts.

How are the wedges for the energy mix in the 2050 plan determined?
The diverse approach of continued energy conservation mixed with carefully targeted renewables that was used to illustrate how difficult it will be to meet 2050 goals was based on the following:

·         25% net reduction in campus energy use through energy conservation

·         34 acres of Solar PV at a cost of $27M

·         A small amount of Solar Thermal since practical challenges are expected to limit their contributions to a small scale

·         $35M Biomass Project

·         A utility scale, 8 turbine, wind power project costing $55M

If you could get 100% compliance with the behavioral changes from students and faculty (conservation behaviors and seal the 200 buildings as the BJC soffit project), how much less energy consumption do you estimate could be achieved?
Based on the results of energy conservation efforts to date, we believe there is a lot more work that can be done on campus. We believe it is very possible that, over many years, we could complete enough energy conservation projects to achieve a net 25% reduction in the campus’ energy use. The Office of Physical Plant is focused on identifying and implementing these projects on an on-going basis; currently we have a budget of $12 million/year for the next 5 years focused specifically on energy conservation.

Why is hydroelectric becoming the “green” energy of choice, vis-à-vis wind power?
Hydroelectric power performs fairly well when compared to other technologies on a cost per ton of GHG reduction. Penn State is currently finalizing an agreement to install new hydroelectric turbines on an existing dam in Pennsylvania; this will provide us with a good clean source of renewable energy. This project will also create an opportunity for students to learn more about installation of this kind of turbine, as well as an opportunity to learn more about dam operations. Their research will be focused on restrictions on the use of the dam, how much water should be passed through the dam, and how to maximize output.

What (political) pressure do we need to put where to get the steam system changed to the GSHP (ground source heat pump) system?
Members of the community have suggested that we follow the lead of Ball State University, a liberal arts school in Indiana. They are currently in the process of installing the largest Geothermal Heat Pump System in the country. They plan to have two energy plants on their campus. They are going to use 3,600 bore holes on their campus as a heat sink to pull heat out of the ground in the winter and reject heat in the summer to ultimately cool 47 buildings on their campus. They are going to spend about $90 million on this conversion.

We scaled that up and evaluated what it would look like for Penn State. We’re much larger – we have 200 buildings in our steam system – and we believe that that conversion would cost about $240 million. If modeled after what Ball State is doing, we’d have to install a new hot water and return system on campus. In addition, there would need to be modifications made to the existing buildings because the terminal equipment in our existing buildings right now wouldn’t do a proper job of heating during the coldest days in the winter with the lower temperature hot water produced from geothermal systems.

Perhaps most significantly is the energy source conversion. Converting our heating system from either coal or natural gas to electricity would increase our campus’ electrical demand by approximately 42 megawatts. If modeled after Ball State, we’d have to modify our electrical distribution system to serve the new energy plants. West Penn Power would then need to increase capacity of the electrical service to campus.

The 9,600 bore holes would need to cover over 200 acres. In order to provide enough surface area to do the heat transfer, each bore hole would have to be about 400-500 feet deep. There is some concern to us in this area because of the pollution risk to the groundwater aquifer.

An additional concern is with the karst limestone in our area – there is variability under the ground. The boreholes rely on surface contact to the ground. With many voids underground, there could be a lot of places we couldn’t drill bore holes. Places that we could potentially drill may require spending additional money and labor and on grout.

We also looked at installing a geothermal system scaled back to a size that would reduce the load on the steam system to a point where the existing gas service to the West Campus Steam Plant could remain in place. In this case we would only need 4,800 bore holes, but the environmental concerns remain even with this reduced number. There would be a 21 megawatt increase in campus electrical demand. We would need to upgrade our campus electrical service from West Penn Power. The smaller conversion would still cost in excess of $120 million, and geothermal has the highest cost per ton of GHG reduction of all options evaluated. As a result of this evaluation process, it’s not being considered any further.

What if those “breakthrough” technologies don’t happen? What is plan b?
We have confidence in mankind’s ingenuity to create these ‘breakthrough’ technologies to help us address our energy future.


5. Process Considerations:

Will you be willing to attend a State College Borough Planning Commission meeting to address safety concerns that previous University representatives (staff, consultant) could not respond to?
Yes. We would be happy to speak about any part of the Steam Services operation during a Planning Commission meeting. Furthermore, we have given tours of the West Campus Steam Plant. Approximately 1,000 people toured last year and all are welcome in the future. In addition, Penn State faculty teach about this operation in the classroom.

Post Meeting Note: Rob Cooper and Paul Moser met with the State College Borough Planning Commission on Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can the alternatives analysis be presented to the Borough Planning Commission?
The results of the analysis can be presented. At this point, we have a number of different reports, studies and screenings. We have the original 2005 Energy Master Plan that was updated several times through 2011, and a variety of follow up analysis on various issues. Some of the analysis was done in-house; these reports are not able to be shared externally without dialog and explanation. There are also several alternatives marked ‘confidential’ (like the biomass report) that contain information that is proprietary to the company that did the evaluation for Penn State. Such proprietary information cannot be shared. However, Rob Cooper and Paul Moser offered to meet with interested people and walk through the analysis. 

Post Meeting Note: Unfortunately, in response to a formal complaint filed with EPA by a member of the community, we are delaying the sharing of information until we see how the complaint plays out.

My understanding is that requests to share the campus energy master plan with members of the community have been refused to date. What is the reason for this, and will it be possible in the future to be more open with these types of plans?
People are encouraged to call us to make an appointment so that we can share our studies and in-house work products that have helped us to make these decisions. A lot of the work product is not in a form to be given to the general public without explanation and dialog. We are willing to share, but we’d prefer to have conversations rather than post this information on a website for the public. Also, several of the studies were marked confidential and we are not permitted to share those. 

Post Meeting Note: Unfortunately, in response to a formal complaint filed with EPA by a member of the community, we are delaying the sharing of information until we see how the complaint plays out.

One major concern of the original pipeline route was the public communication process; what are the current PSU strategies for predecisional consultation of the community and other stakeholders as regards future plans and decisions?
There are procedures that any natural gas customer including Penn State is required to follow. In this case, when we needed a bigger gas service, we went to the local distribution company and asked them to provide it. Columbia Gas then went to great lengths to evaluate a number of routes. We supported their efforts with information and utility drawings. They (Columbia Gas) evaluated the routes and made the initial decision. There were Borough representatives that were involved in that process along the way. Having watched the reaction from the community, it’s obvious that we needed to do more to communicate. We’ve learned that somehow we need to engage the community more. We plan to form a faculty advisory committee that will open up our thinking and our processes. We’ll try to do better the next time.

Denice Wardrop, the Director of the Sustainability Institute, provided additional information. She noted that in January 2012, President Erickson accepted a Penn State Sustainability Strategic Plan. One of the things that was recommended to be able to implement that plan was the formation of a Sustainability Institute where people who represent all the different functions of the institution would come together under one roof. The Sustainability Institute’s job is to integrate sustainability across all functions of the institution. One of the elements in the Sustainability Strategic Plan is a call for more open and transparent decision making by the institution. The Sustainability Institute proposes the need for two improved dialogs to take place. One is internal to the institution between operations and research by way of this newly formed faculty advisory committee. The other improved dialog is with the community at large. The Sustainability Institute proposes to begin a process to examine how these decisions would unfold.

Has Penn State gone out of its way to notify the residents of East, North and West Halls that it has installed a high pressure gas line adjacent to the dormitories?
Yes. We’ve notified the stakeholders along the new route.

Comment: What are your limits? A lot of reason there has been so much pressure on PSU is that it’s easy; one target, set system of governance, etc. Saving energy on the residential scale is nightmarish.
No response.

What is the decision-making power allocation among OPP professionals, the University president and the Board of Trustees? Who sets the energy system goals? Who develops conservation and capital spending strategies to meet goals? Who executes those strategic plans? Who is responsible for ensuring energy goals are met?
OPP establishes energy goals, analyzes technologies and projects to meet those goals, and recommends the best ones to top leadership and then the Board of Trustees for approval and funding. Once approved, it is OPP’s responsibility to implement the projects and ensure that energy goals are met.

Do Penn State administrators believe there is a role for community members in the decision-making process and if so, what is that role?
We commit to understanding the lessons learned from this process. We will sit down and draft a process together with the community that we would like to see for the next time. Then we can embark on that process to see how it works.