Cleveland Thermal moves from coal to natural gas

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Heating downtown buildings with steam once involved wagon loads of seasoned local firewood, then rail cars of Ohio coal and finally cleaner, but still dirty, Kentucky coal.

Today the steam coursing under downtown city streets heating 94 buildings is fueled by shale gas from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Cleveland Thermal, now owned by the privately held Corix Group of British Columbia, Canada, has gone 100 percent natural gas.

Making the switch to the cleanest fuel yet required a $25 million expansion of the Cleveland Thermal’s E. 18th Street and Hamilton Avenue steam and chilled water plant.

And it required building a new 20-inch welded steel gas pipeline under E. 18th Street from Carnegie Avenue one and a half miles north to the plant, taking the total project cost closer to $26 million.

The company on Friday celebrated the big switch to cleaner burning natural gas with tours, speeches and the obligatory ribbon cutting.

The Hamilton plant’s three new state-of-the-art gas boilers have been quietly operating for some time. Cleveland Thermal closed its ancient coal-fired Canal Road steam plant in the Flats in December when the Hamilton project finished ahead of schedule.

The Canal Road plant began sending steam heat under downtown streets in 1894, when Grover Cleveland was president. It pollution equipment has been out of date for some time.

Marc Divis, president of Cleveland Thermal, said switching to natural gas will reduce the company’s carbon dioxide emissions by 49,200 tons a year.

That’s an 84 percent reduction and the equivalent of planting a dense 19,000 acre forest.

Divis said the old plant has been shutdown for good but the company will continue to hold on to the property, just west of Progressive Field and the Quicken Loans Arena, overlooking the Riverview Parking lot.

The new boilers are rated at 84 percent efficient, he said, meaning, in layman’s terms, that they manage to squeeze 84 percent of the potential energy out of the gas — energy turned into steam heat.

The Hamilton plant can easily heat the 30 million square feet of downtown space owned by the company’s existing customers, he said, and has the capacity to add a lot of new customers.

And the new system captures waste heat from the boilers  to run an on-site 1-megawat power plant — which generates enough electricity to run the entire operation, he said.

The new boilers will use about 1.3 billion cubic feet of gas per year. The company currently has signed contracts for guaranteed delivery of the gas through 2019, said Divis.

The Canal Road plant’s now-closed coal burners, installed between 1946 and 1948, were rated in the mid-70 percent range, said Divis.  That was state-of-the art at the time.

The old plant burned about 70,000 tons a year of very expensive Kentucky coal, the kind which is typically used in steel making because it is very high energy and fairly low sulfur.

The company switched to this “metallurgical coal” as a strategy to meet air standards, said Divis. The old boilers had some pollution controls.

Scott Thomson, president and CEO of the Corix Group, told the crowd that conversion to gas is the company’s first step “toward the modernization and revitalization of historic infrastructure assets in downtown Cleveland.”

“When Cleveland Thermal joined Corix in the fall of 2015, we made a commitment to support the vision to power the future growth in downtown Cleveland in a safe, reliable, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible way,” he said.

In an interview Thomson said the company sees Ohio as an opportunity.

The company owns about 1,000 utilities.  Corix is owned by the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, which manages public employee pension funds.