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No coal, no smoke at Saint John’s

Two coal boilers removed from Power House, helping environment

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June 23, 2014

By Mike Killeen

Two coal boilers and a third boiler that burned natural gas were decommissioned, removed and recycled.

Drive past the Saint John's Abbey and University Power House, and you'll notice something is missing that had been a staple at the site for many years.

A big pile of coal is gone.

Saint John's is no longer burning coal to produce heat for the campus. It's a move that was discussed for some time, but became a reality in December 2013.

Two coal boilers and a third boiler that burned natural gas were decommissioned, removed and recycled.

That leaves two boilers that burn natural gas or No. 2 fuel oil. Those two boilers are enough to currently meet the present heating demands on campus, although planning for a new steam boiler fired by natural gas or No. 2 fuel oil boiler is underway, with an anticipated completion date in 2016.

What does that mean? No more coal will be burned on campus, and that nasty looking coal pile is gone.

"This is an all-around good situation, any way you look at it," said Bill Boom, physical plant director at SJU.

"When people ask me about this, my comment is, we have bluer skies. It is a win-win for everybody," said Tom Vogel, chief engineer of the Power House.

Rising coal cost helped foster move

There are several reasons for the move, according to Br. Benedict Leuthner, OSB, Saint John's Abbey corporate treasurer who oversees the Power House.

"Coal was very economical for us for a long period of time," Leuthner said. "But the cost of coal was going up. We were at a place where we had to invest more in the existing infrastructure in order for us to continue burning coal, because of the changing environmental issues and the need for additional pollution control equipment.

"A bigger piece was where we think the industry is going. You know, we're not a very big power plant. Can we do this in a cost effective way going forward? Other plants like us are getting out of coal and moving to natural gas," Leuthner added.

Saint John's had planned to move away from coal since becoming a Charter Signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007. The document committed SJU to minimize emissions and to find alternatives to those emissions which cannot be eliminated in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

The move to discontinue burning coal was hastened by the lower cost of natural gas being produced in the United States. "The boom in the production of natural gas in the U.S. is helping to keep the price down. So, that made it attractive," Leuthner said.

 "A big piece here is that the President's Climate Commitment also played a huge role in this, our commitment to that," Boom said.

"Benedictines are committed to being good stewards of God's creation," Leuthner said. "As energy users, Benedictines are grateful for the ample energy that has enriched our lives and recognize that it should never be taken for granted. As stewards, Saint John's Abbey and University seek to reduce the impacts of energy use through lowered demand, improved infrastructure efficiency and carefully chosen fuel sources."

Other sustainability efforts underway

Saint John's Abbey and University are also conducting other measures that aren't seen by the public.

"We're putting a lot of effort into energy conservation, on a big systems level in terms of buildings and our distribution system," Leuthner said. "We're trying to make the boilers as efficient and cost effective as possible. There's the piping that goes around in terms of the steam (that heat the buildings). We've put a major effort into heating efficiency.

"We're not flat-footed on this at all. It's just the kind of thing people don't see," Leuthner said.

Like that vanished pile of coal.