All about Abbott: Campus plant clearing the air

With its tall smokestacks and erratic late-night noises, the Abbott Power Plant is a scene fit for a film noir.

But there are no gritty detectives or sleazy cops at the iconic campus buildings on Oak Street in Champaign, just a few power generators providing 75 percent of the University’s energy.

“We currently have seven boilers that operate within Abbott,” said Andy Blacker, spokesperson for Facilities and Services.

Two of the boilers are natural gas or fuel-oil fired, three are coal fired, and two are heat recovery boilers that were added in 2005. Blacker also said the University has just submitted a permit to the Illinois EPA to burn more eco-friendly biomass fuels at Abbott.

By looking at biomass fuels, Abbott, which has been a campus symbol since 1941, hopes to avoid the same fate of the noir genre by changing with the times. They’re currently in the middle of a transition away from coal, as called for by the University’s 2010 Illinois Climate Action Plan, or iCAP. The iCAP aims to eliminate all coal use at Abbott by 2017.

Blacker said meeting the 2017 target is a challenge, but Abbott is taking steps to meet it.

“That’s a relatively short time frame, and it’s great to have aggressive goals,” Blacker said. “Obviously by the permit to be co-firing the biomass and the coal, the University is looking at ways to try to meet the goals.”

Bill Shilts, executive director of the University’s Prairie Research Institute and contributor to the iCAP, said the elimination of coal aligns with the University’s sustainability initiatives.

“Among the groups that are interested in sustainability on campus there is a very clear interest in having the University drop the coal-fired part of that power plant,” Shilts said.

“I know that they have an agreement on a deadline, but I don’t know if they’re going to be able to hit it or not. It’s always been a question of economics. It has been, traditionally, cheaper to use coal to fire that plant.”

While Abbott burns coal on a relatively small scale in relation to other power plants, the thought of having a coal-burning facility just a block away is a little disconcerting to some students like Kristina Flores, senior in ACES.

“You can see those huge stacks when you’re walking and I would remember seeing these big clouds and thinking ‘Wow … that can’t be good,’” Flores said. Like many students, Flores, a resident in the Six-Pack, didn’t think too much about Abbott until she knew what it was.

“Because I didn’t know what it was, it didn’t (concern me). Now it’s obviously something to think about,” Flores said.

Shilts said Abbott’s emissions pose very little health risks and that the campus community shouldn’t be too concerned.

“You often see when I come on to campus in the morning — and I know students see these all the time — these huge plumes of stuff coming out of the smokestacks. It’s mostly steam, there’s very little visible smoke,” Shilts said. “In my opinion there’s nothing to be concerned about directly with the emissions from that plant.”

Abbott does, of course, emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, but it does filter out other harmful emissions. One of the biggest components of Abbott is its scrubbing system, a series of mechanisms that remove sulfur from the emissions and thus prevent acid rain.

“When they were first installed it was really new technology, and they still consider them to be the Best Available Control Technology (or BACT),” Blacker said. These newest scrubbers were installed in the mid 1980s, after the University had taken a decade-long hiatus from coal burning.

In returning to the coal-free days, increased natural gas use is the best short-term alternative, and Shilts said technological advances such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” will make it a more financially viable option as well.

“I honestly think that there is so much natural gas using that fracking procedure — it’s going to be way cheaper than coal. I suspect that at least in the near future that that’s really going to drive the price of energy down,” Shilts said.

While Blacker said many of the energy decisions the University makes are financially driven, the ultimate goal is to reduce demand.

“We have two retro-commissioning teams out working on existing campus buildings and they’re seeing a huge reduction in energy of the buildings that they visit. I think they’re averaging 27 to 28 percent energy reduction when they’re done in a building,” Blacker said.

Despite the energy-saving initiatives and LEED certification of new buildings and major renovations, Blacker said Abbott will be a campus mainstay — in one form or another — for years to come.

“I think there will always be a need for some sort of power generation on campus,” he said.