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ENERGY: UND switches coal type

After seven months of burning North Dakota-mined lignite coal, UND's steam plant is switching back to sub-bituminous coal from Montana and Wyoming to heat its campus.

After seven months of burning North Dakota-mined lignite coal, UND's steam plant is switching back to sub-bituminous coal from Montana and Wyoming to heat its campus.

That decision was made after ash from the high-sodium North Dakota coal plugged up the school's boilers and clogged the filter bags intended to sift out pollutants, said Larry Zitzow, UND facilities director.

Steam plant manager Ray Tozer said the ash emitted through the boilers was approaching emissions guidelines set by the North Dakota State Health Department, which is, in turn, guided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The vast majority of coal mined in North Dakota is lignite coal, which contains more moisture and ash and emits less heat than sub-bituminous coal mined in Wyoming and Montana, according to the American Coal Foundation Web site.

UND began a contract in July with the Center Coal Co. in Center, N.D., to supply the campus with lignite coal through June. Zitzow said the school suspended that contract and will stop taking coal from the company Thursday.


That's bad news for Center Coal Co. manager Glenn Baranko, who said he invested about $680,000 in new equipment and upgrades to handle the UND contract. Baranko said he would have to lay off about four full-time employees because of the lost business.

Baranko said the lost contract also will trickle down to trucking companies he contracts with -- he estimated they would lose the work of about six full-time drivers. He said the UND contract was for about 70,000 tons of coal at a base price of $32.25 a ton, plus a fuel surcharge.

Zitzow said UND has purchased enough coal from Center Coal in seven months to satisfy the one-year contract, and he hopes to negotiate a friendly end to the deal.

Baranko said he is consulting an attorney but is unsure if he will bring legal action. "I want to keep an open relationship," he said. "I don't want to create bad blood or burn bridges. Maybe things didn't work out today, but maybe down the road, they'll be more apt to work with me."

Support N.D.

Zitzow said UND switched to lignite last year when they received a competitive bid from Center Coal, and it was an attempt to support in-state businesses.

He said officials thought the school's boilers could handle the lignite coal because of technological advances and because the boilers, which range in age from 29 to 55 years old, burned lignite coal from another North Dakota mine many years ago.

"We've worked very diligently with Center Coal to try to make this happen," Zitzow said, "but with the present equipment we're not able to do it .¤.¤. It would cost about $6 million to get equipment for the lignite to burn right. That's just not in the picture now. It's a very unfortunate situation."


Rick Tonder, UND's associate facilities director, said updating the aging boilers would not be a smart investment.

"It's like putting new tires, transmission and paint on a '52 Studebaker," he said, "and when you're done, it's worth an extra 500 bucks."

Entirely replacing one boiler would cost $15 million to $20 million, Tonder said. He said a new boiler could not be operated until it was fully EPA-certified, which could take up to five years.

"It's one of those things that's very different from replacing a furnace in your home," he said.


Lignite coal is not necessarily dirtier than sub-bituminous coal, said Tom Erickson, associate director for research at UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center, but a boiler and a brand of coal must be well matched to work properly. Erickson said he believes the lignite UND used to burn was from the now-defunct Velva, N.D., mines and was likely considerably different from the Center lignite.

Baranko said he hopes UND will invest in new boilers or technology in the future, arguing it doesn't look good for the Energy and Environmental Research Center, one of the country's premier research institutions in clean coal and alternative fuels technology, to share a campus with 50-year-old boilers.

Baranko said several state institutions that are capable of successfully burning lignite coal contract with his company, including the state penitentiary in Bismarck and Minot State University.


Mark Dahl, assistant director of maintenance and construction at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said his school's boilers burn sub-bituminous coal, not North Dakota lignite. Tonder said a number of private industries in the Red River Valley, including most major sugar beet plants, are unable to burn lignite coal in their boilers as well.

Zitzow said a recent study by Stanley Consultants, an engineering company, showed the school's boilers were in good condition. He said another study, due this winter, will recommend a replacement schedule for the boilers, but other repairs and building projects are significantly higher on the university's list.

A $15 million replacement cost would have to come as a legislative appropriation, he said, or be bonded for with legislative approval. UND has racked up about $40 million in unmet deferred maintenance costs, plus tens-of- millions of dollars in major repairs and building projects.

Where's the money?

Any state funding for a new UND boiler would have to be approved by the energy and environment division of the legislature's House Education Committee. Several legislators on that committee said they would prefer UND and other public institutions purchase in-state products but not at the expense of fiscal discipline.

Rep. Ole Aarsvold, D-Blanchard, said he'd like to do an energy audit of many public institutions in the state to find the most cost-effective way to combat rising energy costs.

Aarsvold referred specifically to Mayville State University, in his district, which can heat itself only with No. 2 fuel, something similar to diesel oil. When they testified before Aarsvold's committee, Mayville administrators said rising gas prices have eaten away a large part of their budget.

UND's steam plant heats the vast majority of the campus, including auxiliary buildings such as the Energy and Environmental Research Center and Ralph Engelstad Arena, said steam plant manager Ray Tozer.

The plant is equipped to heat the campus either with its three coal boilers or with three backup natural gas boilers, Tozer said, but natural gas is almost never the more cost-effective option.

Trucks deliver coal to the plant during the night to be burned the next day. Last week, Tozer said, about eight trucks arrived each night. During the coldest weeks of the year, he said, the school will take up to 18 trucks in a night.

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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