Construction cone orange has become a common sight around UT these days, and there are plans for new changes on Neyland Drive.

In Governor Bill Haslam's State of the State Address Monday night, he addressed the need to fund UT's steam plant conversion project, a $25 million project.

Dave Irvin, associate vice chancellor for facilities at UT, spoke Tuesday afternoon in front of the steam plant. Originally built in 1961, the plant provides steam for heating, domestic hot water and lab sterilization. Administration has begun a plan to convert it from coal-burning to natural gas-based.

"This is a very important project on many levels and we've been wanting to do this for a long time," Irvin said. "Many of the controls are outdated. We can't get parts for them and they're tremendously inefficient."

The plant has also faced scrutiny for its pollution. A coal-based operation, UT's steam plant is the second biggest polluter in eastern Tennessee. Irvin said the conversion will vastly improve the problem.

"It will reduce our emissions by 50 percent, our carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds. To put that in context, that's the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the road on a daily basis," Irvin said. "It makes a huge impact in terms of our quality, in terms of this city and its livability, and in terms of our carbon footprint."

The design planning has already begun, funded by UT. Irvin said the plant has asked for $24 million of the budget to be funded by the state legislature.

"We'll be having a lot of conversations with local legislators. We believe we'll have a definitive answer by the end of the legislative session," he said.

Sustainability has become a hot topic in recent months, and UT recently began offering a degree program on the subject. Nick Alderson, a senior in environmental studies and sustainability, will be one of UT's first sustainability majors. He feels ambivalently about the new plans for UT steam.

"I'm excited about it, but I wish they had gotten more student input so it could have had a larger impact," Alderson said. "I think they probably would've come up with a longer term less emissions plan."

Alderson described a 2011 trip to Ball State in Indiana. They had just installed the largest geothermal system in the United States, rendering their steam generation almost completely free.

"I wish the administration were thinking more long-term and really look at the options. We're going to natural gas, which is fine, but it still has emissions," Alderson pointed out. "Maybe 20 or 30 years down the road, you're going to have to switch again to something else."

Last year, some students began protesting against UT's coal dependency. Alderson serves on the committee for campus environment, and said that this was the chancellor's response.

"The committee supported it because it didn't really have a choice. This was the plan and they were going forward with it," he said.

The project will increase efficiency by more than 10 percent and capacity by more than 20 percent. Construction could start as early as next fall.