Honoring Sustainability

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is elevating its reliance on renewable energy by investing in combined-heat-and-power projects nationwide.
By Matt Soberg | November 22, 2011

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs understands the need for national energy security and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is quickly becoming a leader in renewable energy generation.

Doubling the mandate imposed by President Obama and Congress, the VA adopted an internal goal of securing 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2013. While not quite there yet, the department is well on its way with biomass combined heat and power (CHP) playing a large role in its plans.

VA invested $826 million to improve its energy infrastructure in 2010, pursuant to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A total of $487 million was devoted to renewable energy projects, including biomass-fueled cogeneration systems.

Behind the renewable push, the VA started the Green Management Program, a VA-specific initiative designed to achieve necessary government mandates and internal goals of the department, says Director C.J. Cordova.

With the help of U.S. DOE funding, VA commissioned 75 feasibility studies, performed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, specifically focused on CHP. Since 2010, five VA biomass plants are being constructed and developed with plans to be operational by 2013.

From the studies, VA initiated biomass-fueled CHP projects at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine; the Battle Creek VA Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich.; the Canandaigua VA Medical Center in Canandaigua, N.Y.; the Chillicothe VA Medical Center in Chillicothe, Ohio; and the White River Junction VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt.

In addition to biomass, the VA also has biogas-fueled CHP systems receiving landfill-derived methane at the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Mountain Home, Tenn., and the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfeesboro, Tenn.

With all of its work on renewable energy, VA is well on its way to meeting the additional 25 percent by 2025 federal mandate.

Green Management Program

The VA leads the federal government in sustainable practices, and to do so, it relies upon the Green Management Program. The program was formed to organize and aid the VA in meeting federal mandates, such as the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

“The most important VA commitment is to care for veterans and their families, and the Green Management Program advances this commitment by ensuring a healthy and sustainable environment, low-cost energy, and clean air for current and future generations,” Cordova says. The five focus areas are energy efficiency and renewable energy, fleet, environment, sustainable building and GHG management.

Notwithstanding federal mandates, the VA is considered a safe-zone where energy security is of utmost importance in case of emergency or catastrophe. Embracing renewable energy provides fuel diversity. Biomass plays into this equation by providing a locally derived sustainable fuel, according to Frederick Thielke, management analyst for the renewables program.

This inherent function of VA facilities as a refuge may increase the urgency for the department to embrace alternative fuels. If a catastrophe hits, it is important for the facility to continue to operate. For the VA to have a diverse fuel supply means it can have continuity of operations, Thielke says.

The department’s ambitious goals are honoring veterans through prospective sustainability. As an additional internal goal, the VA intends to reduce GHG emissions 30 percent by 2020. “The VA is meeting these goals and targets by: aggressively implementing energy and water conservation measures; increasing the use of renewably fueled on-site electricity, steam, hot water and chilled water; tuning-up buildings to improve energy efficiency, comfort and indoor air quality; and increasing the use of alternative fuels in VA fleet vehicles,” according to the Green Management Program.

By counting as a renewable fuel, reducing GHG emissions and helping the department manage energy prices through fuel diversity, biomass supports VA renewable initiatives, according to Thielke.

Combined Heat and Power Feasibility

The VA began conducting renewable energy studies to determine which fuels best suited various locations. “We expect this to lead to exciting opportunities for VA to reduce its environmental footprint,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in April 2010. Findings from the studies help VA determine the ideal locations for renewably fueled energy plants, while ensuring cost savings.
The studies viewed renewable fuels such as methane gas from landfills, agricultural waste such as decaying trees and landscape waste, scrap wood and other biomass. In addition, the studies assessed potential cogeneration technologies for existing facilities.

“In conjunction with the investments in clean energy generation and other environmental projects through our Green Management Program,” Shinseki says, “these assessments will help VA continue to lead in going green.”

Through the feasibility studies, the VA learned that CHP provides an efficient solution for energy, operation and cost. The research determined which facilities would be the most ideal for investigating CHP based on fuel availability, specific plant characteristics and local utility rates.

Each facility is unique, and to determine whether biomass would work for a specific facility, the VA approached renewable energies in a systematic way, including prescreening for renewable resources, Thielke says. “The 75 CHP feasibility studies showed that hospitals are an excellent candidate for CHP if the fuel resources are available,” he adds.

Cordova and Thielke mention the Battle Creek VA Medical Center as an example of applying biofueled CHP. “With the help of the NREL, we wanted to know electricity rates for various fuel sources to try to determine whether CHP was economical in Battle Creek,” Thielke says. The next step included investigation into technology application and feedstocks.

VA then took the NREL recommendations and worked directly with the facility to determine the scope of the design. After all of the work was planned, the project went to the bidding process approximately one year ago.

DeMaria Building Co. is providing general contracting services and Nexterra Systems Corp. will provide a biomass gasification system that will produce 28 million Btu (MMBtu) per hour, and supply the center with 2 megawatts of power and 14,000 pounds per hour of saturated steam. The system will allow the VA to cut emissions 80 percent, which is approximately 14,000 tons per year or the equivalent of removing 3,500 cars from the road annually, according to Nexterra.

VA is utilizing biogas from landfills to create bioenergy at the center in Mountain Home, Tenn., which is fueled with processed waste methane. This facility alone contributes 0.5 percent to VA’s renewable energy goal and saves approximately 11,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. To put that in perspective, 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide equals emissions from 112 gallons of gasoline, according to VA.

VA is hoping to get biomass projects up and running, analyze their performance, and use that information to determine whether it makes sense to utilize biomass for future projects.

CHP Construction

Construction of the CHP biomass project at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center started in April. Contractors were finishing up foundations and boiler equipment was arriving on-site at the end of October. The target date for completion is May with construction closeout in June.

The CHP facility will produce 345 kilowatts of capacity and 22,000 pounds-per-hour of high-pressure steam. All energy produced will be utilized on-site. The facility has the ability to utilize multiple fuel sources. Biomass had a significant cost advantage to natural gas, which has now diminished, but biomass provides other benefits, according to Steve Bolewski, the VA network energy manager on the Canandaigua site.

The boiler will consume approximately 15,000 tons of wood chips annually, with 400 tons per week in the winter and 150 to 180 tons in the summer. All chips will be stored on-site in a below-ground bunker with a four-day supply capability at peak times of the year.

The woody biomass comes from a 60-mile radius of the facility, which is in the middle of an emerald ash borer quarantine region. This results in ample biomass supply, since wood cannot be shipped outside the quarantine boundary.

The facility is designed to be state-of-the-art with a unique approach to the equipment. The design incorporated techniques that avoid screening and maintenance of the system. It utilizes oversized boiler and ash management equipment that processes large stones, Bolewski says.

It was important for the biomass facility to be aesthetically pleasing and match the surrounding buildings, Bolewski says. The purpose of the design was to mimic the existing brick facade.

In case of a catastrophe, the facility can hold and take care of multitudes of people and is considered a safe haven. Canandaigua is a 1-million-square-foot facility including its entire campus. If other fuel sources are cut off for any reason, the facility can utilize biomass reserves in case of emergency.

Author: Matt Soberg
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 746-8385
[email protected]