FARGO — In the middle of North Dakota State University's campus sits a heating plant with a brick smokestack stretching to the sky.
Powered by coal and natural gas, the plant runs 24/7. Two coal boilers and two natural gas boilers produce enough steam heat to keep the entire campus and Fargodome warm.
Three times a week, several train cars from Montana lumber down a railroad spur to unload coal at the plant, which burns more than 110 tons of the black rock each day.
Coal is the main power source for heating campuses in North Dakota, with most of the fossil fuel coming from Wyoming or Montana, said Rick Tonder, facilities planning director for the North Dakota University System.
Some have criticized schools for using coal and not doing more to become more environmentally friendly. Burning coal is “the No. 1 reason … for climate change,” said Dexter Perkins, a professor of geology and geological engineering at the University of North Dakota.
“Everyone knows that moving away from coal burning is needed to combat climate change,” he said. “But that costs money, and the crisis, in many people’s minds, has not reached the point where people are willing to spend that money.”
But NDSU Facilities Management Director Michael Ellingson didn’t rule out eliminating coal as a heating fuel for the campus.
“NDSU continues to review technology improvements for producing steam,” he said. “While we can’t predict the future, we believe there will be a time when we aren’t burning fossil fuels.”
About 60 miles west of NDSU, Valley City State University is aiming to reduce its carbon footprint with plans to build an activated carbon plant that will hook up to its steam plant. The venture, in partnership with UND, is a first for a university in the U.S., said Wesley Wintch, VCSU's vice president of business affairs.
VCSU will sell $22.5 million in bonds to fund the effort to not only shrink its carbon footprint but produce a product that it can sell on the international market.
Meanwhile, UND plans to replace the coal boilers that power its steam plant with a natural gas-powered facility.
Capturing the char
Approved by the North Dakota Legislature in 2017, VCSU’s activated carbon project would include a building constructed near the recently built coal-fired steam plant just east of the Rhoades Science Center on the east side of campus.
Activated carbon is used to purify air and water, VCSU President Alan LaFave said. Think of it as a Brita water filter, Wintch said.
It comes from burning biomass like agricultural products or lignite coal, which is mined in western North Dakota. Known as brown coal, lignite is an intermediate stage between peat, which is partially decayed organic matter, and hard coal.
VCSU uses one lignite coal boiler and two natural gas boilers to heat its campus, and char from the coal can be turned into activated carbon once it interacts with steam. Gases produced from burning coal can produce steam to interact with the char.
The activated carbon plant also produces excess heat that can warm the campus. “Why vent it?” Wintch asked of the excess heat. “We can use it to heat campus.”
Coal typically is burned to ash, but capturing the char before it turns to ash would reduce the carbon footprint, Wintch said. At $1,400 per ton, VCSU plans to produce 6,000 tons of activated carbon each year.
The venture could provide an annual revenue of $2.5 million in the first decade and $4.3 million every year after that, effectively offsetting the cost of the project, according to VCSU documents.
Construction on the 18-month project could begin as early as the summer, though it could be later, Wintch said.
“This is the first step for us in developing new uses for lignite coal that will make it more of a green product than it will be a black product,” Tonder said.
Other North Dakota University System campuses could replicate the venture, Wintch said.
However, NDSU likely wouldn’t invest in a project like Valley City’s, Ellingson said. There isn’t enough space on campus to do so, and moving the plant to the west could interfere with air traffic to Fargo's Hector International Airport.
Also, NDSU doesn't use lignite coal because Montana coal is more efficient to ship, according to Robert Barclay, who manages the university's heating plant. The university would have to burn 25% more lignite coal to match the energy of Montana coal, he said.
Still, VCSU's activated carbon plant can provide research opportunities for students across the university system while saving money, LaFave said.
“We spend somewhere in the $400,000 range to heat campus,” Wintch said. “We expect that this project will reduce most, if not all, of that.”
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Like NDSU, UND burns coal and natural gas to heat its campus. The school in Grand Forks burns about 30,000 tons of coal a year, or about 80 tons a day.
But not for long.
A $90 million project will phase out the coal boilers for natural gas in the summer at UND. The coal boilers there are almost 45 years old, on average, and are due for replacement, school leaders have said.
“Overall capital cost to acquire the new boilers is much less with natural gas as compared to coal boilers,” said Mark Johnson, operations and maintenance director at UND. “The proposed natural gas boilers are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40,000 metric tons of (carbon dioxide).”
The designing and permitting for natural gas was faster and less expensive than staying with coal, said Mike Pieper, associate vice president of facilities. “The environmental benefits were just kind of a cherry on top,” he said.
Minnesota State University Moorhead uses natural gas to heat most of its buildings, said Tom Schmidt, power plant chief engineer for the school. Staff can keep the plant cleaner with natural gas than if they used coal, and natural gas makes it easy to follow environmental rules, Schmidt said.
At the moment, natural gas is cheaper to use than coal due to its abundance, Schmidt said.
'Point of no return'
Some university staff have pushed for the use of greener power sources on campus, Perkins said. But the cost of switching, a culture of using coal for decades and coal mining as a major industry in North Dakota have combined to prevent the state from changing to more renewable fuels, he said.
“Anybody who is burning coal is adding to a very serious problem,” Perkins said. “There is no clean way to burn coal.”
Ellingson said NDSU has invested in equipment and technology to reduce emissions, such as building a baghouse to catch ash and other particulate matter from coal boilers. Dust collectors also keep ash from escaping through the stack.
“Lastly, we have made campus-wide energy improvements over the last 10 years to lower our steam demand,” Ellingson said.
Ellingson noted efforts to install more efficient boilers and to replace windows to reduce heat loss in buildings. "On the heating side, we probably started saving $400,000 to $500,000 a year because of that," he said.
Like many who are worried about climate change, Perkins is concerned about the global impacts if humans don’t change their habits. He says the world is reaching “the point of no return."
Still, Perkins believes change is possible, especially in more progressive areas.
“I’ve got to believe that’s possible,” he said. “Otherwise, we are in a world of hurt.”