NEWS- Sayonara, soot storms: UVA heat plant gets makeover

On a bitter night nearly four years ago, two of UVA's boilers went down. Rising to the challenge, the remaining aging boilers strained valiantly to keep the hospital warm– but in the process, they blanketed the Venable neighborhood with a layer of soot.

At about the same time, the university had applied for a permit to burn more fuel and increase emissions. And City Councilor Kevin Lynch alerted citizens that the heat plant was spewing more than a ton of sulfur dioxides a day.

"We were all quite shocked to find out they didn't have scrubbers in the middle of the city in the first place," says Lynch.

Clearly something needed to be done. But considering the state budget shortfall, nearby residents were skeptical that UVA could find the funding to undertake the estimated $50 million overhaul needed to bring the 1950s-era heat plant up to 21st-century standards.

Even during the coal plant's darkest days, however, Cheryl Gomez, UVA's director of energy and utilities, insisted that the upgrade was going to be done.

"We recognized that we would need to be able to generate more steam to heat planned new facilities," says Gomez. "And we anticipated the enactment of new pollution control regulations–" regs that go into effect in September 2007.

With a combination of state funding and financing, the heat plant is now the centerpiece of an ambitious construction project that should be complete by mid-2008. Three boilers will be replaced, and pollution controls using the best achievable control technology will be installed.

That will reduce the daily ton of sulfur dioxides to 107 a year, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Lynch calls reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from 468.85 tons to 107 a "big improvement."

Fine particulate matter will also drop from 17 tons a year– to 14. "The PMs are the ones you want to get down," he adds. "They were already low compared to Tenaska." 

 Almost all emissions are being reduced, but the new pollution control equipment isn't necessarily more energy efficient.

"Yes, you're consuming more energy, but the benefit to the environment is significant," says Gomez. "Everyone should feel better. It's the right way to do it."

UVA's efforts stand in sharp contrast to the wrong way to do it, at least as far as the Southern Environmental Law Center is concerned. SELC took power company Duke Energy– not to be confused with Duke University– to the U.S. Supreme Court November 1 over the way it modernized its power plants, which have been emitting 1.6 million tons of SO2 a year, starting in 1988.

"UVA has been working with the DEQ to comply with sections of the Clean Air Act that Duke has been trying to evade for years," says SELC attorney Cale Jaffe. "Duke never told the EPA what they were doing. [UVA] is making positive steps we never saw in the Duke case."

And if a couple of coal-burning boilers fail in the future, they'll be equipped with "baghouses"– devices that pull out the particulates, according to Gomez. Another Venable soot storm "absolutely shouldn't happen," she says.

UVA's heat plant cleans up its act with a massive upgrade that should be complete by 2008.