No More Coal Burning In The Middle Of Campus: Vandy To Upgrade Power Plant To All Natural Gas

The 200-foot smokestack in the middle of campus could be torn down, though some want it to stay as a landmark. Vanderbilt plans to get rid of the power plant's coal silo and the "bag house" which serves as its filter. Credit Daniel Potter / WPLN

The 200-foot smokestack in the middle of campus could be torn down, though some want it to stay as a landmark. Vanderbilt plans to get rid of the power plant’s coal silo and the “bag house” which serves as its filter. Credit Daniel Potter / WPLN

The days are numbered for coal-fired power on the campus of Vanderbilt University.

The school’s had its own plant since the 1800s – a time long before Nashville Electric and the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Like many older colleges, Vandy is now getting away from coal.  Instead, it plans to keep making electricity using more natural gas.

About 20 percent of Vanderbilt’s electricity is generated on-site, partly so power at its trauma center has backup in case of a snowstorm or tornado.

Officials say it’s efficient to keep the plant going, since it has a dual role, pumping its heat into miles of underground steam pipes to warm buildings.  Vandy figures this takes care of about 90 percent of its heating needs.  A couple devices – called a steam turbine chiller and an absorbtion chiller – convert that energy to handle about 40 percent of cooling on campus as well.

Coal trucked onto campus is augured up into the silo before gravity feeds it onto a grate over a fire. The ensuing thousands of tons of ash then have to be hauled away.  Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

Coal trucked onto campus is augured up into the silo before it’s dropped onto a grate over a fire. Tons of ash then have to be hauled away. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

The trouble is, coal is messy.  Mark Petty, vice chancellor of plant operations, explains it requires lots of trucks hauling coal in and ash out.  And the machines involve all kinds of moving parts that require constant maintenance.

“The natural gas on the other hand, you just have to think of it like your natural gas heater, or your grill at home.  You just have these flames that are coming out that’ll be heating water in tubes, and we don’t handle any of it.”

Petty says Vanderbilt already has a pipeline for its existing natural gas boiler.  Over the next two years Vandy will upgrade to two more efficient boilers before phasing out coal.  At a cost of close to $30 million, Petty figures it’ll pay itself off within a decade.

He says there’s some debate about whether to take down the old 200-foot brick smokestack in a show of environmental friendliness, or just leave it up for the sake of history.

At least a couple people have suggested a compromise: putting a wind turbine on it.


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