Iowa State student leaders, activists concerned about natural gas conversion at campus power plant

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune
A cyclist passes by the Iowa State University campus power plant on Beach Avenue on Wednesday in Ames.

Iowa State University will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning its last two coal-fired power plant boilers to natural gas, but that's not enough for members of student government and activists on campus who say the resources for the project could be better spent investing in renewable energy.

The university completed a $42 million conversion project in 2016 that replaced three of the five coal-fired boilers at the campus power plant with ones fueled by natural gas. The school received approval last year from the Iowa Board of Regents to transition the final two coal-fired boilers.

The transition of the final two 32-year-old boilers was projected last year to cost $16 million — $9 million from university funds to be realized by projected cost savings and $7 million from university utility funds.

A cyclist passes by the Iowa State University campus power plant on Beach Road on Wednesday in Ames.

Burning less coal means fewer emissions of greenhouse gases that drive climate change, as well as less release of particulate matter.

More:ISU to eliminate coal usage on campus, and cut a biorenewables graduate program

While the transition would reduce campus' emissions by 35%, burning natural gas still releases greenhouse gases. Iowa State's student government senate passed a resolution April 6 against the university's plan.

The resolution requests that the university conduct a "fair third-party renewable energy analysis" — potentially paid for by redirecting money budgeted for the boiler transition — and prioritize the "urgent implementation of renewable energy on campus."

The resolution follows increasingly dire reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Ames' ongoing development of a Climate Action Plan to reduce the community's greenhouse gas emissions, and student government's previous passage of a climate emergency declaration and plan requesting that the university transition all of its electricity to be sourced from renewable energy by 2035.

More:$2.4 billion in costs identified to bring Ames closer to net-zero emissions. What does this include?

The Iowa State University's campus power plant is located at 616 Beach Ave. in Ames.

'We just don't have time to mess around anymore.'

Iowa State reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 31% from 2008 to 2019, according to university data.

That reduction has been driven by reduced fuel usage at the campus power plant, although the power plant — in operation at its current location on Beach Road since 1906 — is still the source of the majority of the university's emissions.

University spokesperson Angie Hunt said construction on the boiler transition project is about 10% complete. The conversion should be finished by fall 2023 and the entire project before 2025.

Hunt said along with the boiler conversion, coal-related equipment will be removed from the plant and outdoor coal storage areas will be restored.

Iowa State is planning to reduce its emissions 50% by 2025, including the reductions from the boiler conversion.

"University leaders continue to explore new technologies and alternative fuels to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, at this time, there is not a viable carbon-free source of energy at the scale required to heat the entire campus," Hunt said.

More:It's not just gas prices at the pump rising: Expect an 'extremely volatile' year for natural gas

The university also wants to triple its use of renewable energy and reduce annual building energy consumption by 5% by 2025, she added.

Jennifer Seth, who is studying environmental science and meteorology, is the former senator who wrote and introduced the bill for the resolution against the boiler transition. She did not expect the university would cease the transition. However, Seth hoped there still might be potential for the third-party analysis and a climate action plan to prioritize renewable energy.

She knew the student government resolution does not have any direct power, and said its main purpose is to communicate the student body's opinion on the issue and be a recommendation.

How to heat campus without burning fossil fuels to create steam remains a challenge, but Seth said there's still room for more solar power on campus, on rooftops of buildings that aren't shrouded by trees. She also wants to see more electricity bought by the university that's produced from solar and wind.

Climate Reality Campus Corps frequently protests against and raises awareness about the boiler transition, and the group co-wrote the resolution bill with her, Seth said.

Cheyenne Minniss, the president of Climate Reality Campus Corps, did not immediately respond for request for comment, but ended a December guest column published by the Iowa State Daily asking, "Is Iowa State a university that strives for excellence and sets new precedents, or is it content with settling for mediocrity when it knows there is a better opportunity? Does it continue to uphold the status quo that will undoubtedly cost the university, its students and taxpayers more in the future? Are the university and the Iowa Board of Regents willing to choose short-term convenience over innovation and leadership towards a more resilient, equitable and clean future for all?"

Seth said the issue "is not something we intend to drop in student government" and will continue discussing with university administration.

“I don’t think this issue is getting enough attention on campus," she said. "We just don't have time to mess around anymore," she said of reports showing how little time remains for there to be major changes in energy production to help reduce fossil fuel emissions and ward off the worst effects of climate change.

She commended the university for wanting to take steps toward reducing its emissions, but "I just don't think it is enough and we're running out of time."

More:Here's the thing about that dire climate report: We have the tools we need to fix things

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.