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UCF building on-campus power facility

By Kaitlyn Teabo
On September 11, 2011

By the end of February 2012, UCF will become the first Florida university to own and operate its own power plant with control over its greenhouse gas emissions.

The power plant will be located on the corner of Gemini Boulevard and Libra Drive and will be housed in what will look like a brick building.

David Norvell, director of sustainability and energy management, came up with the idea of building a power plant on campus to comply with the 2009 Climate Action Plan, a direct result of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which was signed in 2007 by President John C. Hitt.

The ACUPCC is a high-visibility effort to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified campus operations. It promotes the research and educational efforts of higher education in equipping society to re-stabilize the earth's climate and accelerate progress toward climate neutrality and sustainability.

"This idea was not solely our idea," Norvell said. "We follow other universities' ideas and keep up to date with what the building trade associations are doing, but what makes this power plant different from the rest is that it is owned and operated by the university rather than an outside utility company."

The danger of an offside generation that comes from a utility provider is the utility provider has a lot of freedom on what it is able to use to generate power, commonly using a mixture of coal, gas, nuclear and oil, which produces a great amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our plan is 100 percent natural gas and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions," Norvell said. The energy that is produced by this power plant is about one-third cleaner than the energy we currently buy from a utility provider."

When trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power plant, the main focus is on carbon dioxide. It also releases nitrous oxides, NOx and SOx, which are both in small quantities, but very important in obtaining climate neutrality.

According to Curt Wade, utilities coordinator of the department of sustainability and energy management, when comparing the new power plant to similar power plants, it will reduce volatile organic compounds by 60 percent, nitrous oxide by 96 percent and carbon dioxide by 93 percent, saving 3,000 tons of CO2 in a fiscal year.

"We did everything we could to reduce emissions because it is important to us, so we bought all of the options that were available on the market, exceeding the basic requirements that are required by law, including a real-time monitoring system that displays exactly what emissions are being disbursed at that moment," Norvell said.

Senior engineering and biology major Broc Scaramella is in favor of investing money to grow closer to climate neutrality.

"It sounds like a good idea, although for $12 million I would have liked to see some of that go to lowering tuition, but I guess in the long-run it will help the environment as a whole, and why wait to do that," Scaramella said.

As the power plant is using the latest technology to ensure the most optimum climate neutrality advances, Eugene Roberts, senior projects engineer, would like to see UCF engineering students, like Scaramella, benefit from it.

"What I keep hoping for in all of these jobs is that the engineering professors will eventually incorporate some of this into their classroom work, because an engineering student will probably never get to see one of these," Roberts said. "If it were a part of the course work to come over and visit it and have an experience that they won't get from somewhere else, then it would be a tremendous opportunity for them."

For some, the biggest benefit of the power plant is not the technology it uses or the greenhouse gas emission reduction, but the amount of money it will cut from the university's electricity bill. It is projected to cut about $2.5 million off of the university's annual $14 million electricity bill, while producing roughly one-third of the university's electricity and enough engine and exhaust heat to help run the university's air-conditioning system.

Like anything that saves money, it costs money first. The startup cost of the power plant is $12 million, including equipment and building expenses.

"The university is completing funding it, using existing funding from the state that was tucked away in the bank for a rainy day kind of thing, from a surplus fund," Norvell said.

With the amount of money the power plant will save, UCF should generate the $12 million start up cost in a little less than six years, depending on the current cost of natural gas.

"It seems like a good investment, because it will reduce the electricity we get from cold fire plants, which blow air our direction that is not healthy to breathe in," said English department chair Patrick Murphy. "This plant will mean better air quality for all of us."

Senior history major Rebekah Kubik also sees this as a good investment.

"Because of UCF's sheer size, I think having our own power plant is a smart and logical decision. I've had serious doubts about some of UCF's other financial decisions, so I really hope that this venture pays off for the university," Kubik said. "It may be a bit myopic, but should UCF actually begin saving money after five years as projected, I would love to see more money put into the history program. We desperately need more professors in order to facilitate smaller class sizes as well as broaden the historical subjects offered."

Although Kubik sees the power plant as a great opportunity, with such a large investment, some students are wondering if the university spent its money wisely.

"I think $12 million is pretty intense. Small things such as turning off the lights can make a huge difference without the need of a power plant," said senior psychology major Laurel Counterman. "Tuition is always increasing, and the grants continue to get cut back due to so-called budgets. I'm all for saving energy, but if it affects students' ability to pay for school due to a large increase in tuition, I feel that there must be a more economical way to save energy."

Claudia Balarin, senior public relations and advertising major, believes the university should have tried other ways to save electricity and communicate with its students before spending money that could have been used for tuition purposes.

"There are so many activist groups around campus that it would be easy to make a drastic change in the power bill and they could even have goals set up of reducing energy to a certain percent by the year and it would bring the UCF community closer together knowing we're all working for a goal that will benefit everyone," Balarin said. "I say UCF forgets the power plant and if we decrease energy by 10 percent we should get 10 percent off tuition."

Despite conflicting opinions of the student body, Norvell stays confident in his plan to bring UCF to climate neutrality.

"This power plant is sure to benefit the UCF community as a whole in terms of saving money and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions."

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