Coal is a thing of the past.

UT's Steam Plant, located on Lake Loudon Boulevard next to Thompson-Boling Arena, is finally beginning a fuel conversion from coal to natural gas.

Since 1965, the plant's coal-fired boilers have consistently generated steam for the school, providing hot water for cleaning, cooking, humidification and dehumidification services on campus.

Director of Utilities Roy Warwick claims the plant has served UT well, particularly in comparison to other coal boilers.

"It seems to me they operate at somewhere around 75 to 80 percent efficiency," Warwick said, "which is very, very high for coal boilers."

However, due to new EPA requirements regarding coal emissions, UT has elected to take an alternate route, transforming fuel sources altogether. Currently, the plant has two coal-fired boilers, in addition to one that can run on coal and natural gas. The two coal boilers will be replaced with those able to process natural gas.

As early as spring 2015, the Steam Plant is expected to complete its conversion, allowing the university to install another boiler at some point in the future, provided the funding is available.

According to Facilities Services, the plant's total yearly emissions amount to almost 91,000 tons of waste, including carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide and mercury, with carbon dioxide being the largest pollutant.

After the conversion, all emissions will be cut to roughly 57 percent of the current output.

Terry Ledford, director of Zone Maintenance, expects that the upgrades will make the plant "at least 10 percent more efficient." Ledford said he believes the new boilers will also contain an economizer – a device that will collect excess heat to return to the system.

The plant will also undergo aesthetic improvements as well, as the coal yard and smokestack will be removed as a result of the transition.

Ledford does not foresee the replacement process causing a nuisance to students or staff.

"There may be some short-term things here and there while boilers are being delivered...," Ledford said. "There may be a couple of steam outages during it that would be a minor inconvenience, like no hot water for showers, but those will be scheduled mostly when students aren't here."

I.C. Thomasson Associates Inc. has been commissioned by the state to design the facility, a process that will be completed sometime in late October or early November, at which point the project will open for bids.

While Warwick sees the natural gas boilers staying for the foreseeable future, he added that as part of the Master Plan, UT does plan to incorporate more green energy in its fuel consumption and move away from fossil fuels.

"We're trying to implement all the newest in green technologies that we can in buildings," he said. "It's part of our Master Plan concept to use thermal storage, more geo-thermal, solar and whatever's available and what is appropriate for us going forward."

Until then, Warwick is simply content to make minor enhancements.

"I am very excited about this for lots of reasons," Warwick said. "First and foremost ... we're reducing our emissions. It's important to me personally, it's important to me professionally, and it's important to this campus and the entire campus community."