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Frequently Asked Questions About the VU Power Plant

Why does Vanderbilt have its own power plant?

  • VU pre-dates the Nashville grid and needed its own power plant out of necessity when the university was founded in the mid-1800’s. There was no Nashville Electric Service (NES) or Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) prior to 1900. A quick history of the VU power plant can be viewed in this presentation.
  • Most large universities generate their own power in some fashion and have done so for many decades. Vanderbilt is no exception.
  • Because Vanderbilt is a major, regional Level 1 Trauma Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, as well as housing important experiments and samples for our research, it is essential to be powered by reliable, uninterruptable energy supply 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year, especially in the event of a widespread emergency or loss of power in the Nashville community such as during the May 2010 flood or past tornado events.
  • Because of the emergency needs required by our Medical Center, Vanderbilt will continue to have an on‐campus power plant for many years to come.
  • Plant Operations has attempted to make the power plant as energy efficient and environmentally‐friendly as is currently economically feasible. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recognized dual-fuel, cogeneration power plants as highly efficient and one of the most environmentally-friendly types of power plants.

Why is there a giant “smoke” stack at the Power Plant? How do you ensure our air is protected from power plant emissions?

  • The large brick stack located at the power plant is the final emission point for VU’s boilers. It does NOT emit smoke!
  • The 215-foot tall masonry stack was constructed in the early 1960’s as part of the power plant expansion.
  • Emissions are tightly regulated through a “Title V” air permit issued by Nashville Metro Health Department that contains much lower emission limits than TVA’s power plants are allowed, because we are not a utility and are in the middle of a city.
  • Technology is in place within the plant to both filter out pollutants prior to the emissions going up the stack and to monitor the emissions to ensure they meet requirements.
  • VU is inspected at least annually by Metro Health to ensure we are doing everything we should to control emissions.
  • In the winter months, water vapor sometimes creates a visible white discharge from the tall stack; this occurs from the temperature difference between the hot boiler exhaust and the cool ambient air – much like the mist that you see when you breathe heavily on a cold morning. It’s not smoke!

Is Vanderbilt’s coal use increasing or decreasing over time? Are our greenhouse gas emissions increasing over time? Where does the ash go?

  • Vanderbilt’s coal use in 2010 was 17% lower than the coal volume used in 2007.
  • Vanderbilt reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions overall by 10% since 2008. GHG emissions decreased 17% on a per‐square foot basis since 2007.
  • Vanderbilt recycles the coal ash waste product through an arrangement with a cement manufacturer in Chattanooga. Ash is an important feedstock for cement manufacturing.
  • The power plant uses low-sulfur, high-British Thermal Unit (BTU) value coal from Kentucky and West Virginia.
  • Demand for air conditioning and chilled water pushes on-campus energy production to the limit during the summer months with peak coal use occurring in August/September.
  • Coal use is at its lowest in February, March, and April, when milder temperatures require less heating and cooling.

Where does Vanderbilt’s energy come from?

  • Vanderbilt’s on‐campus, dual-fuel, co-generation power plant produces 20% of our electricity and 100% of steam servicing 5.8 million square feet of space; this steam is then used for 90% of the campus heating and 40% of its cooling. The co‐generation process is quite efficient: heat, which would otherwise be a wasted byproduct of electricity and steam generation, is used to produce more steam and hot water. This steam can then be used to produce more electricity without having to burn additional fuel.
  • The power plant is fueled by both coal and natural gas, giving us fuel redundancy and pricing flexibility.
  • The remaining 80% of electricity consumed at Vanderbilt is purchased directly from NES which comes from TVA. TVA’s fuel mix in 2010 was 51% coal, 36% nuclear, 9% hydroelectric, 4% natural gas and less than 1% renewables such as solar and wind.
  • If Vanderbilt shut down the power plant and purchased all electricity, steam, and chilled water needs from NES/TVA, it would virtually double GHG emissions from VU. An extra 340,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2E) would be generated by shutting down the power plant, and the cost to Vanderbilt would be exorbitant.
  • The lower GHG emissions from VU’s plant are due to the efficiency of our power plant compared to those operated by TVA, and “line losses” are minimized by having the plant on‐campus (and not having to transmit electricity from hundreds of miles away). VU’s plant is 2X more efficient that TVA plants, and VU buys coal averaging 12,000 BTUs per pound whereas TVA’s averages 5,000 BTUs per pound, meaning we get more energy while producing less emissions and ash than TVA for each pound of coal.

Is Vanderbilt taking steps to reduce our use of nonrenewable energy sources?

  • The most cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way to reduce our use of nonrenewable energy sources is to first reduce our demand for energy. Check out SustainVU’s ThinkOne website for tips on energy conservation on campus.
  • The kilowatt not needed is the most environmentally-friendly kilowatt of all! So it will take us all working together to reduce Vanderbilt’s reliance on nonrenewable energy sources!
  • Energy-saving efforts have reduced VU’s coal use by more than 25% since 2007 and shrunk Vanderbilt’s ‘carbon footprint’ by 12% since 2008.

Steps we have taken to reduce energy use include:

  • Creating Sustainability and Environmental Management Office (SEMO).
  • Hiring a Campus Energy Manager to implement building retrofits and energy efficiency projects.
  • Making TVA’s Green Power Switch a part of VU’s power portfolio (Vanderbilt is the largest purchaser of green power in the NES distribution area).
  • Launching the campus-wide ThinkOne energy conservation campaign and the Eco-Dores environmental peer residential mentoring program to promote smart and efficient use of utilities via education and behavior change.
  • Implementation of aggressive night temperature and lighting set back programs, lighting retrofits, and re-commissioning of utilities in older buildings.
  • Design or renovation of 14 projects on campus that meet requirements for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance energy-efficient green buildings. More information about sustainable building at Vanderbilt can be found on Campus Planning and Construction’s Sustainable Building page or the SustainVU Green Building page.
  • Reduction of fuel used by Vanderbilt’s fleet of vehicles by conversion to electric-powered vehicles and size reduction. Installation of 15 new electric car charging stations on VU campus.
  • Two projects involving solar generation: a partnership with TVA to install solar-powered electric car charging stations and an array of solar thin films at the power house as a part of the first Green Fund Project.

More information about VU’s power plant can be found on the Plant Operations Cogeneration Power Plant and Utility Distribution System page.