Penn State officials field questions on steam plant, energy issues

jvanderk@centredaily.comSeptember 13, 2013 

— Officials from Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant on Thursday offered to share the university’s energy studies with anyone interested, take phone calls on energy issues and give tours of the West Campus steam plant.

OPP officials hosted a public meeting Thursday night about the conversion of the plant from coal to natural gas, which includes installation of a controversial high-pressure pipeline to serve the facility. Officials also discussed the history of Penn State’s two steam plants, work on energy efficiency and future energy plans.

The conversion will help the university meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards that take effect at the beginning of 2016. The change will reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions and reduce traffic by eliminating the trucks that bring 70,000 tons of coal to campus each year.

Rob Cooper, director of university energy and engineering and Paul Moser, superintendent of Steam Services, presented information on the project and Penn State’s work on energy efficiency, also answering questions on those issues.

While about 80 people attended the public meeting, OPP staff will attempt to reach more residents by posting the questions asked and their answers to the university’s Sustainability Institute website, sustainability.psu.edu.

Moser also gave his office phone number to the crowd, 863-3178.

“I’m also your neighbor,” he said. “I live in the Holmes-Foster neighborhood. I walk to work. My family and I are a neighbor of the West Campus steam plant.”

Several of the questions asked related to the university’s communication with the public on the West Campus steam plant project and the pipeline. After public outrage with the original pipeline route, which traveled through a borough neighborhood, Columbia Gas re-evaluated the routes and Penn State trustees approved routing the pipeline through campus, at an additional cost of nearly $10 million.

Cooper said the entire plant conversion will cost about $66.5 million. He said the pipeline will cost about $13 million, but would not say more due to a confidentiality agreement with Columbia. Construction on some sections of the line are expected to begin next month.

People submitted questions by writing them down, for record-keeping purposes. One asked if OPP officials would attend State College Planning Commission meetings to discuss plant safety, a recent discussion topic.

“I’m happy to speak about any part of operations,” Moser said.

Cooper added that OPP has various reports and studies related to Penn State’s research on energy. He said some have “confidential” stamped on them, such as the report on biomass that contains information proprietary to the company.

“They’re not the type of work product that might be shared without dialogue and explanation,” Cooper said. “It might be better if somebody in the audience really wants to go through the studies we did to call and make an appointment. Just tell us what you’d like to see and we can share it and have a dialogue.”

Another question asked, with the resident concerns about the communication process related to the pipeline route, what the university’s current procedure is for consultation of project stakeholders.

“That’s really tough,” Cooper said. “When you need a bigger gas service, you go to the local distribution company and you ask for it. And that’s what we did. I want to say we did it the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Despite involving borough officials and Columbia’s evaluation of various routes, Cooper said he watched the community’s reaction and “it’s obvious we needed to do more and we’ve learned that, somehow, we need to engage the community more.”

As such, he said the university will form a faculty advisory committee to discuss energy issues, what Penn State is thinking and what officials are thinking about doing.

“We’re going to be on guard for things we need to share with the community so we don’t get this type of reaction in the future,” Cooper said. “We’ll try to do better in the future.”

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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