Ohio University (OU) said last week for the next five months the campus heating and power plant plans a switch from coal and will run entirely on natural gas.

The Athens, OH-based university said the five-month switch at its Lausche Heating Plant is essentially a pilot program for the eventual conversion to natural gas, which is expected in 2015.

OU’s Mike Gebeke, executive director of facilities management, said the low price of natural gas, coupled with the mild winter during 2011-2012, allowed the university to hedge about 55% of its natural gas needs. The rest of the school’s gas supplies can be purchased on the open market as needed during the summer.

“It is anticipated that the cost during the summer will be lower than the hedged amount,” Gebeke said. “This led to the idea that we could burn gas to power the plant over the summer for less than the cost of burning coal. This is the first time in the history of Lausche that this has been possible.”

Gebeke added that the facility’s switch from coal to natural gas was expected to lower its carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions by 41%; sulfur dioxide (SO2) by nearly 100%; mercury by almost 99%; nitrogen oxides by 75%; and particulate matter by 51%.

OU’s Tim Strissel, who directs energy management, said the school has always burned natural gas but it has historically accounted for only 15% of fuel used. Consequently the two natural gas boilers at Lausche have not been used to full capacity. The boilers are to run near full capacity during the five-month pilot program, he said.

Lausche, built in 1967, reportedly has four boilers — one natural gas-fired, two coal-fired and one that can be switched between the two fuels — producing 1 MW of electricity from a steam capacity of 330,000 pounds per hour.

If the pilot program were to be deemed a success and natural gas prices were to remain low, the university may extend the program by an additional two months. The university also said it plans to release all data collected during the pilot program to the public.

“The data will be shared so everyone can learn of the plant condition assessments and overall performance and see new opportunities,” Strissel said. “I believe Ohio University will see the price gap of steam plant operation in 100% natural gas fuel mode is narrower than previously thought. The plant’s overall electrical cost is much less when only firing natural gas.”

If Lausche’s two boilers that run on natural gas perform well, they may not be replaced during the ramp up to full conversion by 2015, according to OU.