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It's not easy going green.

Just ask John Harrod Jr., who is helping guide the $250 million green makeover of UW-Madison's Charter Street Heating Plant.

The coal-burning plant will be converted so that it burns natural gas and cleaner, farm-grown fuels such as switchgrass. The changeover won praise from the plant's many critics, including the Sierra Club, which sued the university for violating the Clean Air Act. Gone will be the giant, dust-generating pile of coal that has become a symbol of the plant and its grimy history.

But Harrod, director of the UW-Madison Physical Plant, said getting rid of that coal pile and moving to cleaner biofuels has brought its own set of problems to solve — accommodating longer and more frequent trains, for example, or expanding the plant's footprint in its already squeezed urban setting, or figuring out new air standards for burning biofuels when even environmental regulators aren't quite sure what those final standards will be.

Those issues and others will be up for discussion Wednesday when UW-Madison hosts a hearing on the final version of the environmental impact statement for the project. The hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Room 1106 of the Mechanical Engineering Building, 1513 University Ave.

"I would have to say there would have been easier ways to do this," said Al Fish, head of facilities and planning management for  UW-Madison. "It's been an adventure."

The turnaround on the plant, which is scheduled to be burning the new fuels by December 2013, has been an eye-opener. The university has gone from facing a lawsuit from the Sierra Club for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act to planning for a cutting-edge plant that will burn up to 250,000 tons of biofuels a year.

Fish attributed the transformation to Gov. Jim Doyle, who he said set a goal of making the plant a model for the use of alternative fuels and a project that would help jumpstart a biofuels market in Wisconsin.

"It was like ‘Let's make lemons from lemonade,' " Fish said of the Sierra Club lawsuit and surrounding controversy. "It was a big crisis. We were going to have to make changes anyway."

The presence of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on campus combined with the new Charter Street plant will give UW-Madison a national reputation for alternative energy research, he said.

A campus centerpiece

Sometimes lost in the discussion of the bigger issues is the practical importance of the plant itself. It is the centerpiece of a campus-wide heating and cooling plant that rivals the scale of systems for a city the size of Janesville.

Pipes for steam and chilled water originate at the plant and snake throughout UW-Madison, heating and cooling nearly every campus building, including the massive UW Hospital complex. That's 21 million square feet of buildings, according to Harrod. At any time, 2.3 million gallons of water is circulating through the system.

It's that scale that drives up the expense of the conversion — the most expensive single project ever undertaken by the university. Converting the system to burn biofuels was the most costly option considered, about twice the expense of cleaner coal-burning technologies or natural gas, according to a 2008 study.

But Harrod said the investment in a plant that will burn multiple kinds of cleaner fuel — everything from corn stalks to switchgrass — will  save money in the long run and keep the money spent on fuels in Wisconsin. It will go, he said, into the pockets of farmers instead of the coffers of coal companies in West Virginia.

More trains

One-time critics of the plant and neighborhood officials said the elimination of coal and its attendant problems probably make putting up with some new inconveniences a bit easier.

The plant will be bigger; the triangular lot across from the plant will be turned into a handling and storage area for biofuels, which will be ferried from four new 120-foot silos across Mills Street to the plant on an elevated conveyor. The entire fuel-handling system will be enclosed, Fish said, to reduce dust and noise.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes will be a dramatic increase in the number of trains delivering fuel: from one train with as many as 15 cars four times a week to three trains, each with a maximum of 20 cars, five days a week. Fish said the university has proposed street underpasses to reduce the impact at some crossings and added that deliveries will be timed to come at night.

Jennifer Feyerherm, with the Sierra Club, praised the plan to rebuild the plant.

"The best news is that with this change, we'll be getting rid of the coal. And that brings with it so many benefits. ... There are going to be challenges. But we have to change how we were doing business."

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