Students responsible for heating source switch

Nick Bratcher

As warm air starts to pour out of the heating units in buildings on campus, it carries with it the realized dream of a small group of WKU students.

This winter, WKU will heat all of its buildings entirely with natural gas instead of coal for the very first time in campus history.

The group of students, which does not have an official name, started meeting in 2008 to research how electricity was generated in the U.S. and how WKU could adopt an alternative energy source to coal.

Emily Gillespie, a WKU graduate student from Roanoke, Va., was one of the leaders of the natural gas movement on campus.

The group started from humble beginnings, meeting on Sundays for a weekly potluck, Gillespie said.

“It started with a lot of awareness-building about how we produce electricity in the United States, and in Kentucky specifically,” she said.

Once the group of 10 to 50 students had developed the idea that the U.S. should make a change to using natural gas, it had to decide where to start Gillespie said.

“There’s the top-down approach where you try with national legislation first, or there’s the grassroots approach where you work in your local community and try to make the change from there,” she said. “Then, the change can continue out into other communities.

“It was my desire to work in my own community first and hope that work could continue out and form legislation for Bowling Green, for our state and nationally.”

The group then met with Dale Dyer, plant operations manager for Facilities Management, and Christian Ryan-Downing, sustainability coordinator, about how to accomplish a switch to natural gas.

Ryan-Downing said she found the group’s goal appealing because natural gas is a safer energy source than coal in the extraction and consumption process.

“The biggest thing is that burning natural gas rather than coal lowers our greenhouse gas emissions,” Ryan-Downing said. “There’s less ugly things coming out of the stack, to put it basically.

“We absolutely realize it’s not the best — it’s not the final, best solution — but it’s a step up from coal.”

WKU installed the first of two natural gas boilers in January 2010 and the second over the summer, making way for this transition to a “cleaner, cheaper, and environmentally correct” energy source, Dyer said.

“We’ve actually been working in that direction for probably the last year and a half,” he said. “Up until right now, Western did not have the capacity to generate all the steam it needed with natural gas. We’ll start it up late November.”

Those new boilers also mean big savings in WKU’s energy costs, Ryan-Downing said.

“When we burn it, it burns a lot cleaner, but also it burns a lot more efficiently in our new boilers,” she said. “We get more bang for our buck, so to speak. We get more heat from less fossil fuel.”

Gillespie said she hopes this transition to using natural gas as a main energy source spreads much farther than WKU in the future.

“Being a student on campus, that was my community,” she said. “Working with campus leaders and faculty to change what’s going on on our campus seemed like a good first step in my activism.”