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Power Plant History

History of power generation on campus

Vanderbilt’s method of generating power on campus has transformed throughout the years. Between 1888 and the mid-1920s, Vanderbilt relied on the Mechanical Engineering Hall’s boiler. Its steam provided heat and its generator produced electricity for all of campus. A new power plant was constructed between 1925 and 1927, this time operating off coal-fired boilers. Coal-fired boilers continued to be the campus’ main source for generating power until 1988 when the first natural gas boiler was introduced, converting Vanderbilt’s power plant to a dual-fueled cogeneration power plant. The cogeneration process was highly efficient, using backpressure and condensing turbines to ensure maximum performance. In 2000, Vanderbilt began to expand and diversify its power generation, installing natural gas turbines, electrical generators, heat recovery steam generators, and even a small amount of solar panels.

In 2013, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust approved a large capital investment to convert the cogeneration power plant from using coal and natural gas to using exclusively natural gas. Vanderbilt officially became coal free on November 19, 2014.

Why do we have a power plant?

  • Most large universities generate their own power in some way and have done so for many decades, primarily because the universities tend to pre-date the power grids of their surrounding towns or cities.  Vanderbilt is no exception.
  • Because Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) is a major regional Level 1 Trauma Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, and houses important experiments and samples for our research, it must be powered by a reliable, uninterruptable energy supply 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. This is especially important in the event of a widespread emergency or loss of power in the Nashville community, such  the May 2010 flood or past tornado events.  Because of the VUMC's requirements, Vanderbilt will continue to have an on‐campus power plant for many years to come.
  • If Vanderbilt chose to shut down the power plant completely and purchased all electricity, steam and chilled water needs from the Nashville Electric Service (NES) or the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA), it would double greenhouse gas emissions from VU. At least 340,000 additional metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCO2E) would be generated by shutting down the power plant entirely due to “line losses” from electrical transmission and because TVA’s plants are less efficient than ours.

Conversion of power plant

In 2013, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust approved a large capital investment for converting the cogeneration power plant from using coal and natural gas to using exclusively natural gas. Vanderbilt officially became coal free on November 19, 2014.

Several factors contributed to the decision to rely exclusively on natural gas:

  • Age of the existing boilers The existing power plant was constructed in 1962, and the original boilers were replaced in 1988, 26 years later.  At the time of replacement, these boilers were near the end of their expected life cycle. Just like an automobile or a heat pump, fuel efficiency in a boiler decreases each year as the machinery gets older.
  • Improved operational efficiency Modern natural gas turbines and boilers deliver high fuel efficiency, less maintenance, and are more reliable than other forms of power generation, such as coal fired boilers.
  • New environmental regulations The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted new regulations on the operation of institutional boilers. When it was time for the previous boilers to be replaced, Vanderbilt took into account the additional air emission controls, manpower, and recordkeeping that would eventually be required. Ultimately, Vanderbilt decided that switching to using exclusively natural gas is the best way to not only meet, but to exceed regulatory requirements.
  • Environmental impact improvements Since its installation, the new plant, fueled entirely by natural gas, has reduced greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous air pollutant emissions (such as particulates), and noise pollution.  Additionally, associated transportation fuel use and emissions due to coal trucking needs has been completely eliminated.

What are the impacts of the conversion?

Because VUMC is a major regional Level 1 Trauma Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, and houses important experiments and samples for our research, it must be powered by reliable, uninterruptable energy supply 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year.

The converted plant meets the power needs of the University and Medical Center in a more environmentally sustainable way. The plant's conversion increased its operational efficiency while also contributing to significant environmental benefits, including:

  • Significant reduction in air emissions. Switching to natural gas from coal reduces Vanderbilt’s emission of particulate matter by more than 50 percent. Emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other air pollutants have essentially been eliminated.
  • Fewer greenhouse gas emissions Greenhouse gas emissions from the plant have been reduced by up to 40 percent. Natural gas boilers significantly reduce the power plant’s carbon footprint, dependent on our equipment's efficiency ratings and energy demand on campus.
  • Elimination of coal trucks on campus. Five or six large trucks a day used to deliver coal to the Vanderbilt power plant. This truck traffic and associated fuel use and emissions, were eliminated with the installation of natural gas boilers and turbines because natural gas is delivered via underground pipelines.
  • Operational experience Vanderbilt had two natural gas turbines, which were installed in 2002, and those turbines produced steam and electricity in a highly efficient manner. Vanderbilt’s power plant operators were thoroughly familiar with their operation and maintenance. It is a reliable technology that will meet Vanderbilt’s needs for decades to come. 
  • Return on Investment The investment for the conversion of the power plant to all natural gas fuel, with associated removal of coal-fired boilers and infrastructure, has an estimated payback period of 10 years, dependent on natural gas costs in the future. Additionally, Vanderbilt no longer needs to invest in outdated coal technology.
  • Improved visual aesthetics of campus The tall brick “smoke” stack and coal silo located at the power plant was dismantled and removed, making the power plant ‘blend in’ more with surrounding buildings.