UMass to switch winter energy source from oil to natural gas
This week, the University of Massachusetts will be switching its Central Heating Plant over to a system that will allow it to burn liquefied natural gas instead of oil during the winter, reducing both its operational costs and environmental impact.
According to Assistant Director of Utilities Raymond Jackson, the switch is expected to save about $330,000 this year and $1.5 million next winter and is expected to pay for itself in the first two years of operation by saving $2 million.
The new system will run entirely on natural gas. The liquefied gas will be delivered to the plant, vaporized and finally mixed in with the pipeline gas.
Relying primarily on natural gas from the Northampton Lateral pipeline, the plant currently burns oil only when the supply of gas is curtailed due to winter conditions. The changes will allow the plant to completely eliminate the need to use any oil except in emergency conditions by importing liquefied natural gas – or LNG – during normal winter operation.
“We still burn some oil, which is an ultra low sulfur distillate fuel, mainly in the winter time. That’s because we, in Amherst, are at the end of the natural gas pipeline,” Jackson said.
Because of the pipeline’s size and the increased demand for natural gas during the cold months, the plant could find itself completely cut off from natural gas for up to 15 days per year.
The oil used to keep the plant running during that period is an expensive, high-premium brand, which the facility has had to use up to three million gallons of in previous years.
The engineering and construction of the new $1.2 million infrastructure included the installation of a new t-valve and a slight retrofit to the plant’s gas delivery system, known as a “skid.”
Also included in this price was the purchase of proper safety equipment for plant workers to handle the liquid gas.
“You have to be careful when you handle liquid natural gas or are near equipment that uses it, because the liquid gas is stored at around negative-280 degrees. That’s the biggest danger of LNG, exposure to your skin. You would instantly freeze,” Jackson said. The biggest advantages of the switch from coal and oil to natural gas are the positive environmental prospects and the economic benefits, Jackson said.
“Even though the oil is an ultra low sulfur distillate, it’s still a less environmentally friendly fuel,” he said. “In the bigger scheme, (gas) is not tremendously cleaner, but it is still cleaner than oil. I’d say it’s about 5 to 10 percent cleaner for sulfur and nitrous oxide.”
Already 80 percent energy efficient, by burning only natural gas the plant will be eligible to receive green credits to help offset costs.
The project will reduce the operating budget on campus without negatively affecting its core services, Jackson said.
“When the opportunity presented itself for the University to be able to switch to LNG instead of ULSD Oil, the decision was made to move forward with it because LNG was less expensive, better for the environment and made the Central Heating Plant more reliable than burning ULSD Oil,” he said
In addition to the utilities department, implementation of the project involved the Physical Plant and the Legal, Procurement and Environmental Health and Safety departments. Those involved also worked closely with the President’s Office Energy Procurement Consultant, Competitive Energy Services.
Tom Relihan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org