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Should a State School Provide a Higher Degree of Clean Air?

By Doug Trapp · June 6th, 2002 · Burning Questions
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Should the University of Cincinnati do more to minimize air pollution?

UC is working on a plan to generate 90 percent of its own electricity and generally consolidate its utilities at its newer power plant on the north end of Short Vine Street.

UC says its $70.6 million co-generation project will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other gases by replacing six coal- and oil-burning boilers with natural gas-burning generators.

Environmental activists like the project in general, but aren't sure it does everything it can to keep the skies clear.

"That's what I would challenge -- whether they have the best available (pollution) control technology," says Glenn Landers, the Sierra Club's air quality policy specialist, in Cleveland.

UC operates three small utility plants: one on the main campus, one near UC's medical facilities -- both of which are more than 75 years old -- and a newer one at the north end of Short Vine, between both campuses. The facilities house "chillers," which cool UC's buildings and water, and steam boilers to heat them. At present, UC buys its electricity.

The boilers are the main source for UC's releases of nitrogen oxide, which helps form excess ozone and contributes to acid rain and smog.

An excess of artificial ozone -- not to be confused with naturally occurring ozone -- can irritate lungs and worsen breathing problems, especially among young and elderly people.

Greater Cincinnati is already violating U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) ozone standards, according to a Sept. 11 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.

Power companies, a major source for nitrogen oxide and similar pollutants, are facing tighter USEPA regulations. Cinergy, for example, must reduce nitrogen oxide releases by 85 percent during the 2004 ozone season.

Cinergy plans to achieve this by adding selective catalytic reduction units to some of its power plants, the best available technology and the only upgrade that could curb emissions to meet the new standards.

The units cost $60 million to $100 million each, according to Cinergy spokesman Steve Brash.

UC's Cogeneration Project calls for two 13-million-watt natural gas turbine boilers, a 25-million-watt steam turbine electricity generator, and a 2-million-watt backup diesel generator.

This will allow UC to provide 90 percent of its own electricity.

"By producing our own electricity we're probably contributing to Cincinnati avoiding brown-out situations," says UC spokesman Greg Hand.

The project will increase energy efficiency, saving UC about $4.5 million each year and reducing UC's impact on the environment, Hand says.

The entire project would reduce UC's nitrogen oxide emissions by 84 tons per year (27 percent), carbon monoxide by 54 tons (47 percent) and sulfur dioxide by 334 tons (54 percent), according to a September 2001 letter from UC to the city.

The OEPA requires utility operators to upgrade with the most effective pollution control devices that can be economically justified. UC evaluated six technologies and chose catalytic oxidizers, which would limit nitrogen oxide emissions to 25 parts per million.

However, some of the rejected technology could do an even better job, reducing emissions to as little as two parts per million, Landers says.

UC found Cinergy's technology incompatible with the proposed smaller generators because they don't get as hot as Cinergy's larger ones. Landers says he can't refute that argument. UC rejected other technologies because of cost.

On its application, UC cited permits the USEPA approved in Illinois and Missouri for the kind of generators it wants. Landers says the OEPA shouldn't use those permits to set expectations.

"The question is, 'Are there other facilities that are doing better?" he says.

Construction on the project is already underway, according to Hand. But before UC can get a final permit, OEPA has a public at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services building, near UC.



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