William Lawless, an electrician at Ohio University works to transition a boiler at the Luverne F. Lausche Heating Plant from coal to gas power.

Photographer: Ben Siegel


The smokestack at the Laverne F. Lausche Heating Plant has gone unused since Ohio University recently started burning gas instead of coal for power.

Photographer: Ben Siegel


Luverne F. Lausche Heating Plant at Ohio University

Photographer: Ben Siegel

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OHIO to burn only natural gas for spring, summer

Low cost of natural gas allows for five month test

For the next five months, Ohio University's Lausche Heating Plant will operate entirely on natural gas.

Thanks to the low-cost of natural gas, caused by the mild winter, the University was able to secure a large amount of the fuel.

"Director of Energy Management Tim Strissel identified an opportunity to purchase blocks of gas, known as hedging. We can guarantee the price for 55 percent of our gas needs and purchase the rest on the open market as needed during the summer," explained Mike Gebeke, executive director of facilities management. "It is anticipated that the cost during the summer will be lower than the 'hedged' amount. This led to the idea that we could burn gas to power the plant over the summer for less than the cost of burning coal. This is the first time in the history of Lausche that this has been possible."

But, the benefits will be more than financial. Natural gas use is safer for the environment than coal.

"There will be a fairly large calculated reduction in greenhouse gasses and other pollutants. We expect that we will reduce carbon dioxide by 41 percent, carbon monoxide by 41 percent, sulfur by almost 100 percent, mercury by almost 99 percent, nitrogen oxides by 75 percent, and particulates by 51 percent."

These five months will also serve as a pilot for the University's eventual full conversion to natural gas, estimated to happen in 2015.

"The burning of natural gas is very different from burning coal. The boilers are different and the day-to-day operations require different maintenance," said Gebeke. "This is a test to see how the natural gas system will work and what will need to be changed or improved upon in the plant. This all leads up to the replacement of the plant and what parts and pieces need to be changed. It also gives us a cost comparison to coal and the maintenance reduction that may result."

Ohio University has always burned natural gas, but according to Strissel, it only accounted for approximately 15 percent of the fuel used. As a result, the natural gas boilers were not being used at full efficiency. During this five-month test, the boiler will be run near capacity.

"Boilers are designed to have high efficiency at the 70 percent to 100 percent load range. The boiler combustion chamber, burner assembly and heat transfer surfaces are designed and optimized for this particular airflow and flame intensity condition," explained Strissel. "At other times when the boiler is at lower outputs the amount of excess air required for complete combustion rises dramatically. Whenever you have excess air requirement this carries extra heat of combustion, out of the boiler combustion chamber, and up the stack into the sky. So, the heat doesn’t contribute to steam production and is considered a 'loss.'"

This is not only a test for the entire Athens campus steam system but for the University's two natural gas boilers. If they perform well during the test, they will not need to be replaced during the heating plant's full conversion to natural gas in later years.

If the five months are determined to be a success and natural gas prices remain low, there is a possibility that the University may extend the test by two months. All data collected from the test will be made available to the public.

"The data will be shared so everyone can learn of the plant condition assessments and overall performance and see new opportunities," said Strissel. "I believe Ohio University will see the price gap of steam plant operation in 100 percent natural gas fuel mode is narrower than previously thought. The plant's overall electrical cost is much less when only firing natural gas."