Student Voice


May 21, 2024


UWRF looks to burn renewable fuel source

November 29, 2007

Step into the central heating plant at UW-River Falls and you may have to raise your voice. The sound of coal making its way to the boiler is loud, but some other noise is being generated surrounding the operation of the plant. Currently the plant operates by burning coal and natural gas, but the University is looking at an alternative, renewable fuel -- wood.

"We are committed to try any and all renewable fuels that will work in the boiler," Bill Girnau, heating plant superintendent, said.

Girnau and others from UWRF are in the beginning stages of working with RENEW Energy-Briq Systems, a new company based out of Iowa. The company produces high-density briquettes made from a variety of natural materials; UWRF would be using wood briquettes, or briqs. The briqs are composed of compressed woody biomass.

"We currently supply multiple residential customers, and we are in the test phase with several industrial customers like UWRF," RENEW CEO Steve Smith said.

The University has recently been making attempts to go "green." The addition of the University Center is a testament to the concept, and a transition from the current fossil fuels used in the heating plant to a renewable product is welcomed by many.

"Hopefully [this product will] give us another dependable source of fuel that would help the local economy and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions," Timothy Thum, UWRF facilities engineer, said in an e-mail interview.

Chancellor Don Betz also supports the initiative.

"UW-River Falls is publicly committed to building sustainable communities on campus, in River Falls and beyond," Betz said. "Our testing the use of renewable and alternative fuels as potential sources of energy for the University is an important initial step in discovering viableways to be capable stewards of this place."

The central heating plant on campus can be spotted from a distance, the smokestack towering over every other building on campus. It is here where heat for the University is generated.

Generally coal is burned during the winter and natural gas during the summer. The heat from the burning coal or gas is used to boil water. Steam from the water is then transported through underground pipes to buildings on campus.

"The steam that the plant makes is used to heat water, cook food, run sterilizers, humidifiers, pasteurizers, distillers and clothes dryers, along with its main job of providing heat for the buildings," according to the facilities management Web page.

Knowledge of things such as greenhouse gases, global warming and pollution has grown extensively in recent years, so the push to increase the use of renewable energy has also increased.

"We wanna be leading the charge," Girnau said. "I wish I could tell you that next year we would be burning all renewable fuel."

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal has inherent problems.

"When coal is burned, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds are released," according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Wood emits nitrogen, sulfur and carbon dioxides like coal, but in much lesser amounts.

"The plants take up carbon dioxide from the air while they are growing and then return it to the air when they are burned, thereby causing no net increase," according to the EPA.

The fact that there is no net increase of carbon dioxide is one of the key benefits of wood burning. However, wood, like any resource, is only renewable if it is replenished at an equal rate of consumption. Supporters of such fuel sources hope that is the case. Coal on the other hand is a fossil fuel, so it is considered nonrenewable — it cannot be replenished in reasonable human time.

UWRF is just beginning to work with RENEW, so testing of the product must be accomplished before any framework can be laid out. Girnau and Thum said they are not sure what to expect at this point.

"We will start with burning one truck load (25 tons) of material at the Heating Plant," Thum said.

The UWRF heating plant burns that much coal on the average day during the winter, but coal has the ability to produce more energy per pound compared to wood. This translates into a lower price for wood briqs as opposed to coal, while the amount of air pollution is said to be less.

Girnau said he is unsure of how the current plant at UWRF will be able to handle RENEW's wood briqs, and testing will be critical.

"The boilers are not designed to burn wood," Girnau said.

But burning wood exclusively may not be the case.

"Most likely, we would operate with a mix of coal, wood and natural gas," Thum said.

Smith also said this is a great possibility.

"One of the most attractive and easily implemented biomass energy technologies is co-firing with coal in existing coal-fired boilers," Smith said. "In biomass co-firing, biomass can substitute for up to 20 perecent of the coal used in the boiler."

"This is going to be an ongoing thing, Girnau said. "[But] we're gearing up to do it."