Despite sustainability pledge, Mac still burning sludge

By Peter Wright

The Macalester heating and cooling plant could easily be mistaken for an engine room in the bowels of an ocean liner. It’s hidden away at the bottom of several flights of stairs, which wouldn’t look out of place on an off-shore oil rig, behind a nondescript door several feet below the fine arts building.Filled with three massive boilers and a ceiling of pipes, the boiler room provides all the heat and hot water on campus during the school year.

Getting the water to boil takes fuel. And deciding what fuel to use is an issue that straddles the sometimes contentious divide between good business decisions and the college’s stated dedication to sustainability.

Macalester’s Sustainability Plan calls for the school to “eliminate fuel oil usage by switching to natural gas by 2015.”

Fuel oils can range from the diesel used in eighteen-wheelers (fuel oil no. 2) to something akin to tar (fuel oil no. 6). Macalester currently stores both kinds.

The boilers mainly burn natural gas, Facilities Services Director Mark Dickinson said. But the school switches to fuel oil when asked by Xcel Energy to conserve gas because of excessive demand in the Cities, usually on the coldest days of the year.

“We can be interrupted from our primary supply, which is gas,” Dickinson said.

Macalester also switches to fuel oil if the price of natural gas rises too far above that of fuel oil no. 6, which tends to be much cheaper than the more heavily processed fuel oil no. 2.

Mechanical Systems manager Curt Stainbrook said Facilities crunches numbers at the beginning of each month and decides what kind of fuel to use based on those results. The prices can fluctuate, which makes it hard to predict when to switch to fuel oil.

“We do the math to see which is the most economic to burn,” he said.

Natural gas is by far the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, Chief Engineer Mike O’Connor said. Fuel oil no. 6, Macalester’s primary back-up source, is the opposite of that.

“It’s nasty, dirty schmutz that’s no good,” O’Connor said.

The two older boilers, installed in 1963 with the original construction of the fine arts facility, can use no. 6, while a newer boiler installed in 1996 can use the cleaner no. 2.

Just how dirty no. 6 is can be seen in the equipment on the front of the boilers. A soot-covered tangle of pipes and pumps heats the oil, a necessary process just to move it into the boiler.

According to “The Macalester College Greenhouse gas Emissions Survey: 1990-2006” on the sustainability office’s website, fuel oil no. 6 creates more CO2 pollution than fuel oil no. 2 and natural gas. That’s why the college included a goal of switching solely to natural gas in its sustainability plan.

“We would like to get out of fuel oil, including number six,” Sustainability Manager Suzanne Savanick Hansen said.

Currently, Dickinson said, he is willing to pay as much as a five percent premium to use natural gas over fuel oil, but above that the price difference is too much to ignore.

Hansen agreed, saying that beginning the process of eliminating fuel oil would have to start with finding a way to make it financially feasible. The school must have a back-up source for heat, she said, and meeting the 2015 goal might have to start and end for now at making a commitment to only use fuel oil on days Xcel requests it.

For now, though, eliminating fuel oil from the campus remains a talking point with no immediate solution.

“It was talked about,” Hansen said.