Credit: Ryan Griffis / Creative Commons

When the Abbott Power Plant began operation in September 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was running for a historic third term, the Battle of Britain raged over London’s skies, and the cartoon character Bugs Bunny had only recently made his official debut. Seventy-six years later, the heat and power generation plant in Champaign, Il. still supplies the majority of the energy for the University of Illinois’ flagship campus.

Over the decades, Abbott has seen its share of history. Its development has been shaped by fickle market forces, geopolitical turmoil and rising environmental concern that stretch well beyond Illinois and the Midwest. Abbott has added new, more efficient turbines and boilers. Oil embargoes roiled global markets in the 1970s, and so the plant switched fuel sources (and switched back again).

With the rise of environmentalism, it deployed new equipment to squelch emissions, and it has upgraded control systems to keep pace with the digital age. Today, Abbott looks toward a smarter, cleaner energy future with an eye toward technology that would capture planet-warming emissions before they escape into the atmosphere.

Abbot’s decades-long evolution serves as a microcosm for broader shifts underway in the power grid. It is also a reminder that while a lot has changed in energy over time, a lot has also stayed the same.

In 1940, an estimated 92 percent of primary energy consumed by Americans came from fossil fuels. Three-fourths of a century later and that figure has dropped only to 81 percent, according to government data. That’s despite the invention and rise of nuclear, solar, wind and other forms of power.

Similarly, Abbott was built to burn fossil fuels to provide heat and electricity for the growing University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus. Today, it continues to use a mix of coal, natural gas and fuel oil – albeit more cleanly and efficiently – to supply up to 89 percent of the campus’ energy needs. Solar production and an array of energy-savings measures have been added to the campus portfolio, but the overall energy profile remains the same.

The challenge – as evident at UIUC and elsewhere – lies in the myriad needs energy generation must satisfy and the vast, heavy-duty infrastructure needed to sustain it. Consumers have come to demand energy that is simultaneously cheap, reliable, safe, clean, ubiquitous, compliant with industry rules and immediately available. Meeting all of those benchmarks for a campus that consumes roughly 28,000 households worth of energy per year can be a tall order.

“We’re trying to balance all of those things as much as possible,” says Mike Larson, director of utility operations at UIUC. The stakes are particularly high, Larson notes, given that the university spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in research, much of which requires that steam and electricity service be uninterrupted.

These constraints might help explain why – despite urgent calls to reduce carbon-based energy sources that contribute to climate change – building a smart, clean power grid doesn’t typically happen overnight. While the energy industry is increasingly supported by telecommunication innovations, it has yet to match the quick, Moore’s-Law pace with which Silicon Valley evolves.

“If there’s an issue [with a piece of information technology], they download a patch, no problem,” says Kevin O’Brien, director of Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at UIUC’s Prairie Research Institute. “If it works 90 percent of the time, that’s good enough. In this marketplace of power generation – being able to deliver reliable power that’s also affordable – 90 percent success would not make it at all. You have to have a 99.99999 percent success rate. That’s one of the things that’s really different in the energy space.”

Beyond coal

Like many public and private institutions, the University of Illinois shares in the push to transition to cleaner, smarter energy sources. Following through on ambitious targets, however, isn’t always easy.

In 2010, UIUC was the first Big Ten institution to submit a climate action plan to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. That plan outlined a path toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. It called for a study of how the university might eliminate all coal use by 2017. Five years later, an extensive review of the school’s utilities operations warned that doing so would “[increase] the risk to the University significantly.” The price volatility of switching to natural gas – in conjunction with the cost of accelerating new energy investment – was of great financial concern.

“Over the past few years, renewable energy investments have become much more cost effective, but often still require significant subsidies to compete with traditional energy sources,” the school’s Utility Master Plan, approved in September 2015, reads. “Unless cost effective options exist today, or significant subsidies exist, it may be more beneficial to delay investment in significant renewable energy opportunities.”

Instead, the plan recommended that coal use be phased out between 2025 and 2035, the end of the existing equipment’s useful life, with the option of accelerating that timeframe. It also called for limiting campus building growth, increasing efficiency programs, purchasing renewable energy credits to offset carbon emissions, and other recommendations.

The next month, UIUC issued an updated climate action plan that dropped mention of the 2017 coal target, and opted for a broader goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020 from a financial year 2008 baseline, and it called for an “exploration of options for 100% clean campus energy.” The sweeping 2020 climate targets also include supplying more than half of the university’s projected 2050 electricity demand with a combination of on-campus solar generation and the purchasing of “low-carbon” energy sources.

The school has already made significant progress toward its goals. By fiscal year 2014, UIUC had already reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent from 2008 levels. Last year, it finished a 5.87 megawatt solar farm that, in its first year of operation, supplied 2 percent of projected yearly campus electricity needs. This December, a UIUC subsidiary signed a power purchase agreement with a nearby wind farm that is expected to up the amount of electricity the campus gets from renewable sources to 8.9 percent over the next ten years.

UIUC Beyond Coal, a student environmental group, says it supports the university’s efforts to move to cleaner sources, but it calls for more aggressive action.

“We are particularly concerned with the carbon neutrality date of 2050, which is extremely lax,” the group wrote in an e-mail to Midwest Energy News. “We are also concerned with divestment; while endowment dollars continue to be pumped into fossil fuels, the most sustainable policies in the world would not be enough to affect real change.”

The next frontier: Carbon capture

As it enters its 77th year of operation, Abbott continues to burn coal and natural gas, but it too retains an environmental edge over other fossil-based energy sources. Abbott is a cogeneration plant – meaning that steam used to generate electricity is then passed on to provide campus heating needs. This combined heat-and-power set up reduces the plant’s carbon footprint from m typical coal firing in the region by 28 percent, according to UIUC.

Someday, perhaps, that carbon footprint will drop drastically lower. Last year, as Abbott was celebrating its 75th anniversary, UIUC’s ISTC received $1 million from the Department of Energy to design a plan for retrofitting Abbott with technology that would capture at least 90 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions. This June, ISTC submitted a proposal for phase 2 of the grant, which would give UIUC $58.5 million in federal funding to actually execute the retrofit.

Carbon capture projects have attracted a lot of interest across the globe, but have often failed to live up to the hype. Two high-profile projects in North America – the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi and the Boundary Dam Power Satin in Saskatchewan – have struggled with cost overruns and performance issues.

Even so, ISTC’s O’Brien is optimistic that there is much potential in attempting to clean up Abbott even further. For one thing, Abbott is much smaller than other carbon-capture projects, and it does not require building a whole plant from scratch. What’s more, ISTC’s phase-two proposal includes a workforce development plan that O’Brien says would provide employment opportunities for workers in the beleaguered coal industry. For central and southern Illinois – where coal has long been a way of life – the new opportunities could come as much-needed relief.

“What we’re saying is … take those people who are staring at being unemployed and put them to work,” O’Brien tells Midwest Energy News. “Yes, it’s important to test the technology, but let’s [also] help create jobs, put unemployed people back to work again and create opportunities – especially in a marketplace which has been so battered.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.