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.
Generating electricity this way means EIU will pay about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, down from 7 cents it paid before construction of the Renewable Energy Center, and well below the 11 cents per kilowatt-hour charged to local ratepayers.
About 30 of EIU’s 35 campus buildings are heated by energy produced by the green facility that opened in October, according to project projections. The renewable energy facility cost $80 million to build.
“Operating our campus with a renewable resource allows us to show that cleaner energy options are both practical and fiscally responsible,” said EIU President Bill Perry. “This facility is a symbol of Eastern Illinois University’s commitment to our campus and environment, and demonstrates our willingness to take a progressive step toward sustainability.”
“In higher education, there’s a sense of obligation to be at the forefront of new technologies and to be in a leadership role as far as green technology goes,” said Dave Evers, a Honeywell energy services account executive who worked with EIU in developing plans for its renewable energy undertaking. “They feel the need to demonstrate that in practice. That’s why we see colleges and universities taking bold stances like this.”
Websites have cropped up in recent years encouraging prospective college students to ask questions about a university’s commitment to renewable energy, waste cleanup, and recycling before committing to the school.
One such site is Green Student U, which promotes environmentalism in higher education, and even offers a lengthy list of questions prospective students should ask campus recruiters during their campus visits.
“Being an eco-friendly campus has developed from a mere afterthought to a very important aspect in recruiting students,” said a recent blog post on Green Student U. “The leaders of tomorrow have realized they’re inheriting a world that needs a major facelift in the environmental department.”
Environmental projects come in much smaller forms than EIU’s Renewable Energy Center. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW), for example, undertook a series of green measures in 2011 that will save the school more than $600,000 a year on energy costs, and more than $30 million over the next two decades.
UW’s Milwaukee campus will save on energy with more efficient plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures, and occupancy sensors designed to limit energy usage when a classroom or computer lab is empty.
The university also will update its building controls and HVAC system for long-term savings.
UW Milwaukee has touted the energy savings of its latest green initiatives: the updates will decrease annual carbon dioxide emissions by an anticipated 31 million pounds, or the equivalent to removing more than 2,700 cars from the road, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And reducing energy use by about 10 million kilowatt-hours annually is enough to power 940 U.S. homes for a year, according to the university.
“The question always comes down to financials,” Anson from Honeywell said. “Many times, [green] projects don’t come together not because schools don’t want to do it, but because the money part doesn’t work. With [budgets issues] the way they are in higher education, these projects have to save schools a lot of money before they commit.”
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