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‘Irony’: Arctic Climate-change Researchers Still Conflicted Over UAF’s Coal-fired Powerplant

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is building a heat-and-power plant to replace the old facility that went into service in 1964. The new $245 million powerplant, scheduled to come online next year, will feature updated technology that’ll reduce most pollutants – but it will continue to emit  greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet. Many on campus say that conflicts with UAF’s leadership in Arctic climate-change research.

The work on UAF’s 17-megawatt combined heat and power plant is about halfway done. And when the state-of-the-art facility goes online around December of next year, Senior Project Manager Mike Ruckhaus says it’ll be among the most environmentally friendly coal-fired power plants in the country.“From an environmental standpoint, this meets all the current regulations and criteria,” Ruckhaus said during a tour last week around the construction site.

That includes regulations related to the tiny particles called PM 2.5, produced by combustion, which can foul Fairbanks’s air during winter inversions.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Mike Ruckhaus is senior project manager of the powerplant-construction project.

“So it’s about as clean as you can get on PM two-five,” he said.

But the plant will emit nearly 132,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. That’s 3 percent less than the old facility, but still roughly the amount of C-O-2 generated by 26,000 cars annually. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of atmospheric C-O-2. And even though it’s a done deal and construction is well under way, UAF’s new powerplant still bothers some university researchers who study climate change and its impact on the Arctic.

“From a scientific perspective, I understand the consequences of burning fossil fuels – and particularly for people who live in the Arctic and the subarctic,” says Scott Rupp, a professor of Forestry and deputy director of UAF’sInternational Arctic Research Center. He says when UAF officials were debating a decade ago over what kind of power plant to build to replace the old one, he and others favored renewable-energy options like hydro and solar.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Railroad hopper cars filled with coal will park over the fuel-handling facility on the north side of the plant and belly-dump their loads into this conveyor system, which will move the coal to crushers that'll reduce the 6-inch chunks to the pea-gravel size that the new plant's boiler is designed to burn.

“It’s disappointing,” he said in a recent interview. “And my personal preference would be to have been able to continue to be a showcase of not only great science on climate change but be able to put some of our innovation into how we power the Arctic university that we are.”

Rupp and others acknowledge that locally mined coal, from the Usibellioperation in Healy, was the only practical option for fueling powerplants in Fairbanks.

“We still don’t have natural gas in town, so obviously you can’t rely on that, “says University Regent John Davies, who favored that type of fuel for the new powerplant. And because the need to replace the old facility was urgent, he added, “You have to at some point have a plan and move forward on it.”

Davies says UAF’s old plant was well past its design life and that university officials had to make a decision.

“We had replace the powerplant because it was 50 years old and it was failing,” he said. “And it could’ve been a major catastrophe if that plant had gone down in the middle of winter.”

Davies is a longtime advocate for clean air and energy efficiency, and he says he still feels conflicted over the university’s decision to build another coal-fired power plant.

Credit UAF
An elevated walkway connects the new powerplant with the existing facility, because the old building will be used for office space and to house two old oil- and natural gas-fired boilers that'll be used for backup.

“There certainly remains the irony that this is the only coal-fired powerplant in the nation that’s being built – and we’re also the leading group on understanding climate change and the need to reduce the emissions of fossil fuels to reduce the amount of greenhouse warming.”

Davies referred to reports from two media outlets, ClimateWire and Alaska Dispatch News (subscriptions required), that pointed out the UAF powerplant is the only one under construction in the United States.

Davies says he hopes university officials will be able to choose natural gas, or renewable energy, when UAF replaces the power plant again a half century from now.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.