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Frequently Asked Questions About the VU Power Plant Conversion

Vanderbilt University currently has an on-campus co-generation, natural gas-fueled power plant which produces 28% of our electricity and 100% of our steam, servicing 12 million square feet of building space. This steam is then used for 90% of campus heating, sterilization, and 40% of campus cooling. This cogeneration 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. The remaining 72% of electricity consumed at Vanderbilt is purchased directly from Nashville Electric Service from Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

The plant was converted from a dual-fuel plant using coal and natural gas to using entirely natural gas on November 19, 2014. The conversion of the plant replaced the coal-fired boilers with natural gas boilers, retaining the same power generation capacity. The iconic smokestack, silo, and other coal infrastructure were demolished in the Spring of 2015 as part of a broader renovation to modernize the plant.

Keep Updated on news about the Vanderbilt Power Plant:

  • Vanderbilt Power Plant Conversion Highlighted in AASHE 2013 Higher Education Sustainability Review
  • Click here for story published by the Nashville Banner on May 22, 2015: “Vandy Smokestack Kicked Off Campus.”
  • Click here for story published by Vanderbilt News on May 21, 2015: “Vanderbilt power plant exhaust stack demolition is complete.”
  • Click here for a time-lapse video of the demolition of the stack.
  • Click here for story published by Vanderbilt News on April 13, 2015: “Vanderbilt celebrates end of coal, smokestack teardown.”
  • Click here for story published by Vanderbilt News on December 18, 2014: “Vanderbilt power plant is now coal-free.”
  • Click here for story published by the Vanderbilt Hustler on November 12, 2014: “Plant conversion ‘40% complete,’”
  • Click here for story published by The Tennessean on May 9, 2014: “Vanderbilt power plant to replace coal power with gas.”
  • Click here for story published by InsideVandy on September 18, 2013: “Going up in smoke: University to begin power plant conversion in October.”
  • Click here for story published by Vanderbilt News on April 19, 2013: “Vanderbilt makes switch from coal power to natural gas.”

Why did Vanderbilt convert its power plant?

    There were several factors that made 2014 the right time to upgrade Vanderbilt’s power plant:
  • Age of the existing boilers.  The existing power plant was constructed in 1962, and the original boilers were then replaced in 1988, 26 years later.  These boilers were 25 years old and near the end of their expected life cycle. Just like an automobile or a heat pump, fuel efficiency in a boiler decreases each year as the machinery gets older.
  • Improved operational efficiency.  Modern natural gas turbines and boilers deliver high fuel efficiency, less maintenance, and are more reliable than other forms of power generation, such as coal fired boilers.
  • New environmental regulations.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has enacted new regulations on the operation of institutional boilers.  Not only are new boilers needed, but additional air emission controls, manpower, and recordkeeping would eventually be required.
  • Environmental impact improvements.  The new plant fueled entirely by natural gas has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, air pollutant emissions (such as particulates) by 50%, and noise pollution significantly.  Additionally, associated transportation fuel use and emissions due to coal trucking needs were completely eliminated.

What are the benefits of using natural gas?

  • Significant reduction in air emissions.  Switching to natural gas from coal reduced Vanderbilt’s emission of particulate matter by more than 50%, while emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other air pollutants were virtually eliminated.
  • Fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  The new natural gas powered plant produces 25% less greenhouse gas emissions than the previous plant, and more reduction may be gained over time as all facets of the upgrade come online.
  • Elimination of coal trucks on campus. Five or six large trucks a day deliver coal to the Vanderbilt power plant. These 2,300 annual deliveries, and associated transportation fuel use and emissions, was entirely eliminated with the installation of natural gas boilers and turbines because natural gas is delivered via underground pipelines.
  • Operational experience.  Vanderbilt already had two natural gas turbines, which were installed in 2002, and these turbines produce steam and electricity in a highly efficient manner. Thus, Vanderbilt’s power plant operators were already thoroughly familiar with their operation and maintenance.VU Campus, Autumn
  • Return on Investment.  The investment for the conversion of the power plant to all natural gas fuel, with associated removal of coal-fired boilers and infrastructure had an estimated payback period of 10 years originally. Because the price of natural gas dropped recently, this payback period is projected to be quicker, possibly 5-6 years. Furthermore, Vanderbilt will avoid investing additional money in outdated coal technology.
  • Improved visual aesthetics of campus.  The tall brick “smoke” stack and coal silo located at the power plant was dismantled and removed, making the power plant ‘blend in’ more with surrounding buildings. See a video of the demolition here.

Why does Vanderbilt even have its own power plant??

  • Most large universities generate their own power in some way and have done so for many decades, primarily because the universities tend to pre-date the power grids of their surrounding town or city.  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.
  • If Vanderbilt chose to shut down the power plant completely and purchased all electricity, steam and chilled water needs from NES/TVA, it would double greenhouse gas emissions from VU.  An extra 340,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCO2E) would be generated by shutting down the power plant entirely, at a minimum, due to “line losses” from electrical transmission and because TVA’s plants are less efficient than ours.

Is Vanderbilt taking steps to reduce our use of non-renewable energy sources?

  • Vanderbilt stopped using coal on November 19, 2014 and converted the on-campus power plant to use only natural gas.
  • 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 Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint by 18% since 2008. We need to keep up the good work and continue the energy usage reduction trend.

GHG reduction

Steps we have already 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 16 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 pageor 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 19 new electric car charging stations on VU campus.
  • Four projects involving solar generation: a partnership with TVA that installed 10 solar-powered electric car charging stations, an array of solar thin films at the power house as a part of the first Green Fund Project, installation of four solar-powered electronics charging stations throughout campus as part of a Green Fund Project, and the installation of a 120 gallon solar hot water heating system and a solar photovoltaic system on the Currey Tennis Center as part of the Green Fund.
  • Significant renovations and retrofits to many campus buildings including lighting retrofits, updates to Building Automation Systems and heating/cooling systems.

Read more about the conversion at Inside Vandy.

Read more about the conversion on NPR.