Campus News

The End of Coal

October 1, 2013
Cynthia Nickoloff

The days of coal on Oberlin’s campus are numbered.

In a few weeks, the college will begin a landmark phase in its effort to reach carbon neutrality when it starts the process of replacing the Central Heating Plant’s obsolete, coal-fired boilers with new natural gas-fired ones.

On October 14, work will begin to prepare the site for construction, including an addition to house the new boilers. Approximately 141 days later, in early March 2014, Oberlin’s coal-fired boilers will be taken offline. From then on out, Oberlin will be a coal-free institution.

The Start of Something Big

Dumping coal may be one of the most resounding steps Oberlin has taken to reach its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2025, but it is just one of more to come.

“We intend a short history for the natural-gas plant as we move fully to renewables as soon as possible,” says chemistry professor Rob Thompson, former member and chair of the Committee on Environmental Sustainability.

The college’s energy master plan seeks to reduce the campus’s reliance on and consumption of all fossil fuels. Besides decommissioning the coal plant and moving in the short term to natural gas—a fossil fuel, yes, but one that emits less carbon—the college plans to develop geothermal heating and cooling zones across campus that will utilize electric compressor technology.

Phasing in these zones will allow the college to take advantage of the technology improvements that will occur over the next decade, says psychology professor Cindy Frantz, chair of the Committee on Environmental Sustainability. The natural-gas plant will provide efficient heating and cooling during this interim period. Afterward, it will serve as a back-up system—in the event of an electrical outage, during times of unusually high need, and during maintenance periods.

“Our long-term goal for the natural-gas boiler plant is to use it only if and when it is needed,” says Steve Varelmann, director of the Office of Facilities Planning and Construction.

But for Now: Effects of the Project on Day-to-Day Campus Life

The Central Heating Plant’s boilers provide the steam required to heat almost every building on campus and to provide them with hot water for cooking and washing. It also houses the chillers for cooling most campus buildings. The project of replacing the plant’s coal-fueled boilers with natural-gas fueled ones, as well as replacing an outdated chiller, must be phased to allow the plant to continue operating during construction, says Leo Evans, assistant director of the Office of Facilities Planning and Construction.

On October 14, the project will reach its first two milestones— the start of site preparation and bringing the chilled water plant offline—two of the three project phases most likely to impact the daily routines of most faculty, staff, students, and visitors to campus.

The start of site preparation will cause changes in traffic patterns and parking that will persist until the project is completed in December 2014. Work to occur inside the CHP, plus construction of an addition to the northwest side of the plant to house the new boilers, necessitates closing the current north entrance to the CHP/Service Building parking lot. To allow continued vehicular access, a new north entrance will be constructed at the start of the project. During construction, about 15 parking spaces will be lost. Alternative parking will be available in the lots adjacent to Hales Gym and Mercy Allen Hospital. Details about when and where construction will occur, as well as about parking, will be reported on Oberlin OnCampus as soon as they are available.

Taking the chilled water plant offline means the CHP will no longer have the ability to provide chilled water to cool the buildings tied to its chilled water distribution loop. That shouldn’t be a problem, considering the average high temperature for Oberlin in mid October is 63 degrees Fahrenheit. But, should northeast Ohio experience a hot spell in the coming weeks, people in those buildings could get a little too warm.

Similarly, when the project reaches its sixth milestone—taking the coal-burning boilers offline—in March 2014, people in some buildings may get a little too cool. The date of that milestone will be based on the weather. “If we have a cold snap, we’ll see,” says Evans.

“A big transition like this always results in some bumps and hiccups,” says Frantz. “But we Obies don't avoid doing the right thing because it's inconvenient.

“Closing our coal plant will bring our action in line with our values, and is a huge step forward toward carbon neutrality.”

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