How blue and gold make green

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Shortly after Edison made incandescent light practical for use outside the laboratory, Notre Dame became the first university in the United States to generate electricity—reportedly up to 10 kilowatts powering eight lights in the Main Building. It’s pumped the juice ever since. The combined heat-power (CHP) plant on Saint Joseph’s Drive that produces enough steam to heat campus and to provide its chilled water also creates enough electricity to cover about half the University’s current needs. Coal, fuel oil and natural gas fire various boilers, allowing the flexibility to economize based on fuel costs and demand.

These days, “gas is triple the cost of coal, and oil is six or seven times the cost,” says utilities director Paul Kempf ‘80. While some want to burn only gas, the cleanest of these options, it would mean "somebody’s salary goes down or somebody’s tuition goes up . . . year after year. So the University’s making some economic decisions."

As the campus has grown, so has the plant—and the demand for power purchased from the grid. Environmental stewardship is a top priority, so the University uses low-sulphur coal and is spending $20 million on pollution-cutting technologies that will further reduce emissions of particulate matter, nitrous oxide and other threats to air quality. “Our efficiency is about twice that of the standard electric generating plant,” Kempf notes. “If this plant was shut down and energy was brought in from the outside, the net emissions, although it may not be here on campus, would go up.”

While some neighboring universities have begun to dabble in such biofuels as switchgrass and municipal sludge, Kempf believes the University is best served by waiting for federal regulators to set clear rules. As for solar, wind and other alterntives? In addition to a solar array General Electric is donating, the new Stinson-Remick engineering building will house a gas-fired microturbine—through the benefaction of NIPSCO, the local utility—that will enable heat recovery for other uses. And the Notre Dame Energy Center is working with students on a wind project. Small steps for now, but “The goal,” Kempf says, “is to . . . demonstrate all these technologies in a useful manner that also provides an educational opportunity for our students and faculty.”

Curious about other environmental programs on campus? Visit, the University’s clearinghouse for information tips. A sample of what you’ll learn:

• The campus consumes 80,000 tons of coal and 900 million gallons of water annually.

• The tower of Hesburgh Library (floors 4 to 13) alone has 4,210 lighting fixtures, putting into perspective the potential for energy savings in the push to retrofit campus buildings with state-of-the-art fluorescent lighting.

• Food Services recycles its cooking oil, supports sustainable seafood and coffee production, and purchases 25 percent of its foods locally.

• Reuse programs such as From Old 2 Gold and NDSurplus have kept hundreds of tons of discarded student items and office equipment out of landfills and raised tens of thousands of dollars for local charities.