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University Hall at the University of Montana (copy)

The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana is exploring ways of generating all of its electricity on campus, not only greatly reducing emissions, but saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in energy costs.

By installing turbines inside the university’s steam-powered heat system, the electricity generated from the turbines could provide all of the campus’ electricity needs, UM officials told the Montana Board of Regents at their meeting this month.

UM’s operations and finance vice president Paul Lasiter presented part of the plan at the board meeting in Bozeman, seeking permission to hire the company that will assess exactly how the plan would play out.

“This project includes replacing some of the oldest equipment that we have on campus, literally dating back to World War II, and introducing turbines to our existing natural-gas-burning steam generation system that is anticipated to produce substantially all of the electricity we need on our campus,” Lasiter told the regents.

While the project was estimated to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by about one third, Lasiter said it wasn’t a perfect solution as it still required UM to be using a system based on burning natural gas. However, he said the new combined heat and power system the campus is looking at installing can also run on biogas if that became more readily available in the future.

“This isn’t a perfect solution in being 100% green, but it is an economic solution and one that does move us well along in reducing our carbon footprint,” he said. “So from where we are today, we think this is a win-win solution.”

The current heating plant system is so old and inefficient, it doesn’t meet modern permitting standards and is grandfathered in, Lasiter told the regents.

UM’s sustainability coordinator, Eva Rocke, said Friday the campus would have more exact details on the project after the study Lasiter was requesting takes place.

Rocke said McKinstry, a Seattle-based green engineering firm, would oversee the analysis and help UM lock in the details. The combined heat and power, or CHP, study is part of a larger analysis of the campus' energy usage, including finding ways to make every building as energy efficient as possible.

"Even when you're looking at 100% renewable technology, like solar or wind, you don't want to put any of that on buildings you haven't made as energy efficient as they can possibly be," Rocke said. "There's no point in generating energy that you're just going to be wasting."

Rocke said McKinstry will be looking not only at the CHP and building efficiency, but it is also doing a solar feasibility study, which is still in the data collection phase. She said McKinstry could have more information on the CHP turbine project by February.

Lasiter oversaw a debt restructuring at UM earlier this year, essentially paying off old debt with new debt at far lower interest rates, saving the campus millions in interest payments.

When the debt restructure was announced in August, Lasiter said the savings would be used to improve campus infrastructure and sustainability efforts, but declined to go into detail. Some of those projects, including the turbine project, became clear during the Thursday meeting of the regents.

Lasiter announced plans to upgrade Pantzer Hall into UM’s “showcase” dorm. Built in 1995, Pantzer is already the most recently built dorm by far.

The residence hall is the only one featuring suites, each with four private bedrooms sharing two bathrooms and a living room, as well as 15 private single rooms with private bathrooms, both of which Lasiter said were in high demand from potential students deciding where to go to college.

New furniture, flooring and appliances are part of the plan, as well as overhauling the wireless internet access to become the campus’ fastest access point.

“In the increasingly competitive landscape of higher education, students are demanding and deserving of modern and well-appointed living spaces to enrich their educational experiences,” Lasiter said.

Montana State University in Bozeman, which has seen skyrocketing enrollment while UM’s has fallen significantly over the last decade, built one brand new dorm in 2016 and another is in the works, while UM’s two newest dorms were built in 1995 and 1967 respectively.

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