Exhibit - Exploring the Evolution of Energy: A History of Michigan State University Energy Use
The high demand for energy and the controversy surrounding power resources is an increasingly significant issue facing our world today. The necessity for huge energy production is often associated with large institutions such as Michigan State University, but the use and demand for energy on campus has undergone several transformations from its earliest days to the present.
The Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program, or CAP, organizes campus history into four phases.
• Phase I 1855-1900
• Phase II 1900-1925
• Phase III 1925-1955
• Phase IV 1955-present
These periods are characterized by shifts in campus landscapes, purpose and population, and contain specific evidence for various energy resources and uses. Campus energy methods have ranged from the use of wood fuel, the introduction of electricity and centralized steam heat, the use of several coal power plants, and a modern push for and discussion of possibilities in green energy.
Analyzing the efficiency and sustainability of past campus energy methods today, can teach us if these have been sustainable or effective, the impact of campus growth on energy, and the consequences of particular systems. Researching energy methods provides a greater understanding of the history of MSU as well as valuable information for future energy use on campus.
The four phases of campus history can be summarized by these energy characteristics. Phase I of the University involved little amenities. Rooms were heated by use of wood stoves, fueled with the wood chopped by students. Eventually, campus transitioned to the use of coal stoves and then coal fed boilers which produced steam power and heat. Since the middle of Phase I, MSU has continued to use coal as its main power source. During Phase II, the college increased coal power plant building construction and capacities. By Phase III the construction of the Shaw Lane Power Plant met the serious need for energy facility improvements. Finally, Phase IV is characterized by coal remaining the chief, if controversial, fuel source. As campus energy demands continue to increase, however, the direction of future energy needs and resources will become an even greater concern.
Energy has and continues to play a vital role in the growth and development of the university. For example, energy capacities played a role in determining the construction of buildings or the allowed enrollment rate. Yet energy is in turn also impacted by these factors. Renovations and additions to energy facilities have been continuously implemented to meet rising energy demands. Although often in the background of campus activities, without sufficient energy campus could not function. Especially in this modern technological age energy demands continue to rise and increased amenities and greater populations have created a greater pressure on campus power resources.
Today MSU fuel sources include coal, natural gas and biofuels. Coal, is a cheap fossil fuel and approximately 250,000 tons are burned each year. Although the university has relied on coal as the main fuel source since the end of Phase I, it is a high emitter of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Natural gases such as methane, a more expensive fossil fuel, account for 7% of the annual steam and electricity production. Although also nonrenewable and a pollutant, gas produces fewer amounts of carbon dioxide and toxins. Finally, starting in 2007, trial experiments with woody biomass, corn starch, and switch grass, types of renewable energies, have been implemented. This fuel, however, does not produce a significant enough amount of power.
Currently the Simon Power Plant generates all steam, heat, and electricity for the Campus. Yet as energy demands continue to increase and the availability of fossil fuels declines, it is very apparent that this method is unsustainable. Despite being historically used and an inexpensive fuel, with our modern understanding of the environmental and health consequences of burning coal, MSU can no longer rely upon this type of energy source.
Although energy methods and sources have been slow to change, the future must hold a change in direction. MSU has been investigating and experimenting with renewable energy sources such as solar energy, biomass fuels, such as plant byproducts, and geothermal heating. Currently these types of renewable fuel resources only represent a very small percentage of MSU power sources. Yet the future of energy lies in the investigation and investment in these techniques.
Since the Simon Power Plant is currently on track to reach capacity for steam and electricity by 2023, an Energy Transition Plan and committee was recently organized to seriously address the future energy needs of the campus. In order for this committee to be successful, a drastic change in energy production is necessary, and methods for sustainable energy must become a critical campus priority. Along with these changes, it is the responsibility of the university to develop a more transparent energy agenda and to take the concerns of the public into account. Coal air emissions impact the health of everyone on and near campus. Since 1969, and as recent as 2008, the Simon Power Plant has committed several pollution violations that have received relatively little public attention. Therefore, grass roots movements such as MSU Beyond Coal should be more involved in planning the future of campus energy procedures and information on past and present pollution violations must be made more available to the public.
Exhibit created by Theresa Koenigsknecht as an intern project for the MSU Campus Archaeology Program 2011
MSU Archives and Historical Collections