2:55pm

Tue March 22, 2011
Energy

Ithaca coal power plant goes all natural gas

Rodney Hulbert has been loading coal at Cornell University's power plant for the past 30 years. Before him, his father and grandfather worked at the plant.

"There’s a lot of history up here for me," he says.

So yesterday marked the end of an era not just for Cornell, but also for Hulbert, as he and fellow employees gathered to load up the last coal that will be burnt to power the campus.

Cornell's plant burns up to 65,000 tons of coal a year. But from here on out, the plant will run on natural gas, as part of Cornell’s plan to move toward more sustainable energy. Two turbines bolted to the floor of the plant are among the many retrofits necessary at the 140-year-old plant to accommodate new technology and the new fuel source.

Going to gas

What's ironic about this conversion is that it comes at a time when natural gas is a fraught issue in Cornell's home town of Ithaca. Ithaca sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, and is a center for activism against natural gas drilling through the controversial technique known as "hydrofracking."

But Bert Bland, who directs the energy and sustainability department for Cornell's facilities, says gas is a placeholder, being used in lieu of coal, until renewable sources are developed.

"I’m very happy we’re burning natural gas rather than coal. I’d rather be burning all renewable energy, but coal is dirty stuff," Bland notes.

Cornell will be hooked up to an interstate natural gas pipeline, according to Bland. That means fuel for the plant will come from many sources - not just the Marcellus Shale.

And the school plans to give biomass fuels a try in the old coal burners. There may be another familiar face: longtime coal plant worker Rodney Hulbert says he's hoping to get one of the jobs created in the plant.