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Central Steam Plant boiler conversion project to significantly enhance campus sustainability efforts

May 31, 2016

Byron Nichols, senior associate director of utilities in the Facilities Department, working with a boiler in the university's Central Steam Plant.
Byron Nichols, senior associate director of utilities in the facilities department, works with a boiler in the university's Central Steam Plant.

As part of Virginia Tech’s ongoing sustainability efforts, the university will reduce the carbon emissions at the Central Steam Plant by nearly 50 percent over the next four years.

In addition, the conversion from coal to natural gas, once fully implemented, could save the university more than $1 million a year in operating and fuel costs.

The Central Steam Plant annually generates a steam output greater than 943 billion BTUs (British thermal units, one of which is approximately the heat produced by burning a single wooden match) and provides more than 100 campus buildings with a portion of their heat, hot water, and electricity needs.

“The conversion from coal to natural gas is yet one more way Virginia Tech is committed to the sustainability efforts outlined in our 2009 climate action plan,” said President Tim Sands. “We are committed to finding solutions to many of the challenges the world faces, and sustainability is among them. As we work to solve these challenges through our teaching and research, we have the opportunity to use our own campus as a learning environment to not only test, but to live out future solutions.”

In 2009, the university established the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment to set long term campus sustainability goals. Among them, Virginia Tech has committed to reaching a 50 percent recycling rate by 2020, improving energy efficiency where and whenever possible in campus buildings, to achieving a minimum LEED rating of silver for all new construction, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Through an agreement with ATMOS Energy, the university’s gas distributor, a new, larger gas line was installed from the Corporate Research Center to the university’s Central Steam Plant last year. The new 20,000-foot-long pipeline is eight inches in diameter and provides firm (uninterruptable) gas service to the plant.

The new pipeline has the capacity to handle the energy needs of the campus today, and many years into the future.

Previously, the Central Steam Plant operated on an interruptible gas contract—which meant the university had to be prepared to switch completely off of natural gas within 30 minutes to ensure supply to more critical gas users in the area.

To date, two of the plant’s boilers have been upgraded to burn natural gas and continue to cogenerate electrical power. Additional changes are planned as the university reduces the use of coal over the next few years.

“The result of these improvements will greatly reduce our carbon emissions while maintaining reliable, economical energy to our campus,” said Vice President for Administration Sherwood Wilson.

Related sustainability initiatives

Since the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment in 2009, the university has made significant progress in evolving toward a more sustainable campus.

Virginia Tech has increased its recycling rate from 36 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2015. Factors contributing to this include:

•       The switch to compostable and reusable to-go containers in on-campus dining halls in 2015

•       The transition to single stream recycling

•       Designated recycling areas for football tailgaters.

•       The installation of nearly 100 BigBelly Solar compactors in 2012.

In addition, several more campus projects have improved energy efficiency, conservation, and alternative transportation efforts. Among those are:

  • The installation of water bottle refill stations in residence halls and academic buildings.
  • A bike parking corral near Pamplin Hall
  • A covered bike rack in front of the Graduate Life Center
  • Funding for the Ytoss program
  • The addition of electric hand dryers
  • Upgrades to streetlamps
  • Four new bicycle fix-it stations
  • Installation of a new solar charging table

Virginia Tech is working to make sure all new construction and major renovation projects have received the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. LEED buildings use less energy and water, improve indoor air quality, and use locally manufactured products and material.

In addition to the 12 buildings that are already LEED certified, the 73,000-square-foot Classroom Building now under construction is being built to LEED certification standards and planning efforts are underway for the creation of a Multi-Modal Transit Facility that is expected to be the first LEED platinum certified building on the Virginia Tech campus.

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