At an event held on March 21, workers at the University’s Central Energy Plant shoveled the last lumps of coal used to create energy for Cornell. Since Wednesday, when the last of the coal was combusted, the University’s Ithaca campus has been coal-free.
Marking the success of the University’s “Moving Beyond Coal” initiative , Cornell now uses natural gas to provide the campus with its electricity and heat, according to Tim Peer, energy plant manager of Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant.
“It is a significant reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions and the end of the coal era at Cornell,” said Robert Bland, senior director of the University’s environmental compliance and sustainability office. “This is a major milestone in our goal to create a ‘carbon-neutral campus.’”
In the fall of 2009, Cornell launched the Climate Action Plan , a set of 19 initiatives that are currently being implemented to achieve net-zero emissions rates at the University by 2050. Kyu-Jung Whang, vice president for facilities services, said “Moving Beyond Coal” was introduced to dramatically reduce the University’s carbon footprint — the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by Cornell.
“The largest single contributor to our carbon footprint was the emissions from burning coal to heat,” Whang said.
According to the University’s Sustainable Campus website , on-site combustion of coal represented 56 percent of the approximately 319,000 metric tons of Cornell’s greenhouse gas footprint in 2008. Peer said that, before 2009, the University used about 60,000 tons of Eastern Kentucky bituminous annually — the equivalent of 3,000 truckloads of coal.
Since the combined energy plant  — which was recently awarded  the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star award in recognition of its “outstanding pollution reduction and energy efficiency qualities” — began operating in January 2010, coal use dropped to 6,000 tons a year before it was phased out entirely, Peer said.
To replace the energy previously provided by coal, the University has used the new plant to harness energy from natural gas through a process called cogeneration.
The plant “features two natural gas turbines that are capable of providing the steam necessary to operate the campus year-round,” Whang said. By recycling excess heat produced from the combustion of natural gas, the turbines not only generate electricity, but also produce steam that can be used to heat the campus, according to the University’s energy and sustainability website.
As a result of Cornell’s actions, on-site coal consumption has dropped to zero, while coal usage associated with purchased electricity has been reduced by 80 percent, according to Peer.
Because it has an operating efficiency of approximately 79 percent, the plant uses 29 percent less fuel than the average power plant. Whang said this reduces Cornell’s carbon dioxide emissions by 89,300 tons per year — preventing the equivalent of “emissions from more than 15,400 passenger vehicles,” according to the EPA. This emissions reduction cuts about 25 percent of the University’s carbon footprint, Whang said.
In addition to being more environmentally friendly, natural gas is a more efficient and affordable energy source than coal, according to the University.
As for the Central Energy Plant, now that it is no longer used to burn coal, the coal boilers are in “standby mode,” said Bland, senior director of the University’s sustainability office. The University is currently investigating the feasibility of bringing the boilers back into service with “sustainably harvested biomass as a fuel,” he said.
“This would [further] advance our Climate Action Plan. We’re working with a class taught by Tim Fahey in natural resources to study this option,” Bland said.
“The switch-over is significant in that it shows the University’s commitment to addressing climate change issues,” Whang said. “[It] keeps Cornell on track to meet its climate commitment.”