Vanderbilt to convert coal plant to natural gas

$29M project will take two years to complete

In a move praised by local sustainability experts, Vanderbilt University’s Board of Trust has voted to replace the school’s coal generation facility with a system that burns natural gas. The $29 million conversion will begin in the fall and take about two years to complete.

As a part of the project, all of the coal infrastructure also will be removed, including the three-story bag house — which serves as a filtering system — and the smoke stack, coal hoppers and coal silo. In their place will come two natural gas-fired boilers and one natural gas-combustion turbine, which will co-generate steam and electricity.

“There are a lot of good reasons for a conversion to natural gas,” said Jeff Gowdy, founder of J. Gowdy Consulting, a local firm that specializes in helping businesses become environmentally sustainable. “I’m sure in the long-run the decision will make financial sense and it’s definitely better for the environment.”

Vanderbilt officials noted that economic factors were part of the decision, including the lower price of natural gas, rising electrical costs at the university and escalating maintenance costs for the aging coal plant.

“The use and design of Vanderbilt’s places, spaces and resources tells not only our history, but often the history of our nation,” said Chancellor Nick Zeppos in a news release. “The decision to convert this facility to natural gas reflects the priority we place on conserving our environment and energy.”

Jerry Fife, Vanderbilt vice chancellor for administration, added the following: “The conversion of the coal facility is consistent with the university’s increasing commitment to sustainability efforts across campus — from construction and dining to recycling and transportation. Although the facility contributes to the reduction of our carbon footprint by co-generating electricity, steam and chilled water on site, the switch to operating solely on natural gas will go a long way toward achieving our environmental goals.”

The conversion will also eliminate the daily traffic of large trucks transporting coal to the plant that sits near the busy center of campus.

“Vanderbilt is doing the right thing,” said Tiffany Wilmot, president of Wilmot Inc., a Nashville-based green building and consulting firm. “I’m certain a conversion from coal to natural gas will improve air quality. I applaud Vanderbilt for this move. I’d call it a breath of fresh air.”

Vanderbilt has been producing steam and electricity to power campus and medical center buildings for more than 100 years. The current power plant and its hub of underground networks began in their current location in 1923 and were expanded in 1964, 1980 and 1986 to add capacity and improve operations. In 1992, the current chiller plant was added to provide cost-effective air conditioning for campus buildings.

“Sustainability, at its core, is environmental, financial and human,” Gowdy said. “This will show improvements in all those areas.”

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