Cheap heats: UVA grapples with smokestacks

In truth, it's not always that easy being green, especially when you're a cash-strapped university dealing with a 50-year old heat plant and you need to generate more steam.

Last March, Charlottesville residents were horrified to learn that UVA's antiquated power plant spews out more than a ton of sulfur dioxide a day and that the university wanted to increase that amount by 112 tons a year.

Its application to the Department of Environmental Quality sparked an outcry when UVA maintained that, as a nonprofit, it wasn't required to meet federal air standards. DEQ said UVA did need to meet state standards by using the best available control technology (BACT). After a short standoff, the university decided to comply and hired a consulting firm.

Six months later, UVA is still exploring options for reducing emissions while expanding its heating capacity. An engineering firm, RMF in Baltimore, is working with Richmond environmental firm Aegis to come up with a plan.

"There are a lot of different pollution control technologies," says Cheryl Gomez, UVA director of utilities. "They're doing lots of feasibility studies. The more you get into it, the more you find."

Such studies don't come cheap. The budget for consultants is $300,000 and Gomez expects that cost to rise because one more consultant is needed. "We need specific technical expertise with the boilers and shop we operate," says Gomez. "It's like a puzzle with a lot of pieces we need to pull together."

Then there's the quandary of where funding will come from. "I'm very concerned about that," says Gomez. While updating the heat plant is in the six-year capital plan, it's not in the current budget. "Basically, it's another budget cut for us," says Gomez.

UVA has a December meeting scheduled with the DEQ. "That meeting will set the tone of where we're heading," says Gomez. By March UVA will submit a revised application to the DEQ.

"Our goal is to reduce emissions despite the growth of UVA," says Gomez. "This is an extremely high priority for the university."

City councilor Kevin Lynch, who alerted Charlottesvillians to UVA's application to increase its emissions last March, says he's "cautiously optimistic" with UVA's efforts. "I've heard about a number of interesting possibilities. It remains to be seen what will be implemented."

The next hurdle will be to figure out how to pay for environmentally correct technology in the midst of Virginia's worst budget crisis.

Even the DEQ is aware of that consideration. "If we require controls, where are they going to get the money for it?" asks senior engineer Mike Kiss.