UNC begins testing substitute for coal

The next chapter in UNC’s energy policy will be cleaner and less potent — and more expensive.

That chapter begins today when the University tests its ability to use wood by burning the 20 tons of wood pellets that arrived at the cogeneration plant Tuesday.

The wood pellets, made of compressed wood scraps, represent another step toward UNC’s goal of coal-free energy production by 2020. It was one of several options recommended by the Energy Task Force in April.

Coal vs. Wood

Energy (Btu/lb.):
Coal: 13,000
Wood: 8,100

Cost (per ton):
Coal: $100
Wood: $145

“We’re pleased that the University has so quickly moved to implement one of the recommendations from the Energy Task Force,” said Tim Toben, local developer and task force chairman.

The pellets produce less energy than coal, giving off 8,100 Btu/lb. compared to coal’s 13,000 Btu/lb.

They also cost $145 per ton, compared to $100 per ton for coal.

Toben said increased enforcement of coal regulations and increasing wood pellet availability would tip the price balance in the opposite direction as early as 2012.

“What we have to keep in mind is that the cost of coal is going to go up,” he said.

The plant will be testing the 20-ton shipment as a predecessor to a larger 500-ton shipment set to arrive in November.

“We’re just testing the mechanisms of getting wood into the furnace,” said Phil Barner, the cogeneration systems manager for UNC Energy.

Both Barner and Toben said the increased costs associated with using wood pellets were justified by the fact that wood pellets are a renewable resource.

The source of the pellets is Carolina Wood Pellets, a Franklin-based company that advertises 40-pound bags for wood stoves.

Stewart Boss, president of UNC’s Sierra Student Coalition, which spent much of the last school year protesting the University’s coal burning, said the group is pleased to see UNC weaning itself off of coal, but added that more could be done.

“There’s always more room for alternative energy sources on campus,” he said.

He added that the group would be watching to make sure the pellets are harvested in a way that is environmentally friendly.

Toben said the Energy Task Force would do the same, adding that he has confidence in Carolina Wood Pellets’ ability to satisfy UNC’s energy demands in a sustainable fashion.

Barner said he expects today’s tests to go smoothly. He added that he expects that any complications in the process would be minor and not be enough to derail November’s tests.

Contact the University editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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