Biomass-Fueled Heating Plant at Heart of University’s Energy-Retrofit Program

Biomass-Fueled Heating Plant at Heart of University’s Energy-Retrofit Program

Nearly $13 million in cost savings and counting

By the early 1990s, a significant deferred-maintenance backlog, aging infrastructure, and limited budget had forced Eastern Illinois University (EIU) in Charleston, Ill., into a run-until-it-fails mentality resulting in unreliable systems and a perception of poor customer service. With state funding for major capital projects severely limited, creative approaches to facility and infrastructure improvements were needed.

In 1995, Gov. Jim Edgar created a pilot program allowing building upgrades to be financed through guaranteed energy savings. EIU agreed to take part in the initiative.

Today, EIU is a model of energy efficiency, with the lowest energy cost per square foot among public universities in Illinois. EIU did not earn that distinction overnight. The success of the energy-conservation measures initiated under the pilot program convinced officials to move aggressively with further retrofits.

The first two phases of work began in 2000 and touched nearly every corner of the 320-acre campus. EIU worked with Honeywell to implement the improvements—an array of upgrades designed to drive campuswide energy efficiency and improve comfort. The upgrades included new high-efficiency lighting systems, water retrofits in dozens of buildings, five variable-vane electricity-driven chillers to replace seven 30-year-old steam absorption units, and modifications to chilled-water piping and controls.

The upgrades also included expansion of the university's building-automation system: Advanced control strategies intended to make the university's chilled-water loops and air-handling systems even more efficient were implemented, and a Web-based interface allowing EIU personnel to monitor and adjust building systems remotely, outside of normal business hours, was commissioned.

Energy and environmental savings from the first two phases of retrofits have been significant. As of September 2010, from a combined $13.4 million investment, EIU had cut a total of nearly $13 million in energy and operating costs, saved 50 million kwh of electricity, and avoided pumping 430 million lb of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In total, the reduction in greenhouse gases is equivalent to removing more than 18,400 cars from the road for a year.

EIU and Honeywell expanded the relationship in 2009 with a $79 million program combining energy-efficient facility upgrades with one of the largest biomass-fueled heating plants on a university campus. The program will put the school in position to save approximately $140 million in additional costs over the next two decades. EIU is utilizing those savings to fund implementation of the program through a 20-year performance contract.

Two large biomass gasifiers will drive the new heating plant, which EIU named the Renewable Energy Center (REC), when it goes online in 2011. The project is the first application of gasification technology in the region and will replace the university’s existing steam plant, which consumes more than 10,000 tons of coal per year and requires constant maintenance because of age and obsolescence.

In the biomass-gasification process, wood chips are heated in an oxygen-deprived chamber until they break down to create a synthetic gas that burns similarly to natural gas. The gas is used to fire the boilers and provide a carbon-neutral solution for heating the university’s facilities.

Honeywell will install a steam-driven turbine that uses excess steam to produce electricity. The turbine is expected to generate more than 2.9 million kwh of electricity per year, reducing the amount of energy the university will need to purchase from the electrical grid.

Despite being a heat- and power-generating plant, the REC blends seamlessly with the aesthetics and complements the style of the university's other buildings.

EIU will incorporate the REC and its sustainable-energy concepts into its curriculum beginning in fall 2011. Additionally, the university has identified several research opportunities in the area of advanced biomass fuels.

Also under the latest program, a significant number of mechanical systems on campus were retrocommissioned to ensure efficient operation, and a new higher-voltage switchyard was built to consolidate two intake points for electricity, raise the metering voltage, and lower utility delivery rates under revised tariff billing.

Through the first nine months of 2010, total campus electricity and steam use was down 14 percent from the previous year. The program is expected to reduce electricity consumption by an estimated 6.2 million kwh per year—enough energy to power more than 580 homes.

Successfully undertaking such a broad range of improvements and addressing so many deferred-maintenance issues would have seemed impossible during the early 1990s. A commitment to conservation and access to the right financing tools have made EIU a higher-education leader in energy efficiency and green technologies.


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