EIU will save $140 million over the next two decades.

An environmentally unfriendly coal-burning plant on the Eastern Illinois University (EIU) campus was once a deterrent for prospective students. Closing the facility and launching a massive bio-energy initiative has proved a recruitment boon for the university.

EIU decision makers committed last fall to building a Renewable Energy Center, one of the largest university biomass installations in the country, after a coal-burning facility on the Charleston, Ill., campus had drawn considerable public and media scrutiny, becoming a headache for EIU recruiters.

The Renewable Energy Center, a 19,000-square-foot steam plant that will provide heat for buildings and classrooms, uses wood chips from forest residue for fuel, and will slash the campus’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 20,000 metric tons while saving the school $140 million in energy costs over the next 20 years.

Replacing an environmental sore spot with a national model for greening a college campus also has attracted students who support environmental consciousness and have interest in majoring in renewable technologies.

“This is as much a recruitment play as anything else,” said Kent Anson, vice president of higher education for Honeywell, the company that helped build the Renewable Energy Center at EIU. “This took them from a coal plant that made front page news in a negative way and turned that into a positive. They have a lot of ways to leverage a project like this, and recruitment is certainly one of them.”

Nearly seven in 10 high school students surveyed by the Princeton Review last year said they would evaluate a college’s environmental policies and commitments before attending classes there.

EIU’s Center is run by a technology known as gasification. Fuel is heated to a high temperature in an environment with low oxygen levels, creating synthetic natural gas. Gas is then joined with additional oxygen to combust just like natural gas.

The two-part gasification process creates cleaner emissions at far cheaper energy rates.


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