A powerful alliance
The pioneering work of this professor and power industry executive represents a partnership more than two decades in the making. Possible only through a mutual exchange of expertise, their innovations make good sense for both the environment and business.
In the eyes and life’s work of Pedro Amaya, sustainability is an art — one that seeks balance between humans’ need to develop their world while also preserving their environment.
Amaya ’87 MS talks about his work with conviction and confidence. His decisions must consider the public’s well-being, the needs of nearly 5.4 million utility customers in 11 states and the interests of his company’s stockholders.
As director of civil engineering and geotechnical services for American Electric Power (AEP), one of the nation’s largest energy producers, Amaya oversees the development and improvement of power plants, the disposal of byproducts created at coal-fired plants and the reclamation of company land previously used for surface coal mining.
“I could be reckless and damage the environment beyond repair, or I could be so conservative that you have to pay a lot for electricity,” he says. “So when you talk to me about sustainability, it is very serious. It is not an abstract concept — it is a physical concept.”
Amaya developed an interest in geotechnical engineering as he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in structural engineering in his native Colombia. In his studies and research, the names of Ohio State faculty in the field arose time and again. Impressed by their international reputations, he set his sights on a graduate degree here.
What he couldn’t foresee: He would go on to collaborate with Ohio State professors throughout his career and share his alma mater with his future wife and three of their four children. All told, the family holds nine Ohio State engineering degrees.
Three years after earning his master’s, Amaya accepted a position as a geotechnical engineer at AEP. With it came an opportunity to tap faculty expertise on the repurposing of coal combustion residues (CCRs) — byproducts of coal-burning power plants’ scrubbing processes — in economical and environmentally friendly ways.
This is expertise only available to AEP because of the collaboration with Ohio State. In the field of fly ash and coal combustion byproducts in general, it has a very high level of respect. Pedro Amaya
Amaya explains the engineering and scientific side of CCRs as easily as he does the partnership he and Ohio State faculty have nurtured for more than two decades. He describes Professor Emeritus William Wolfe and Research Associate Professor Tarunjit Butalia ’96 PhD, both of the university’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, as pioneers in the field.
“This is expertise only available to AEP because of the collaboration with Ohio State,” Amaya says. “In the field of fly ash and coal combustion byproducts in general, it has a very high level of respect.”
Throughout their partnership, Amaya has channeled CCRs from AEP power plants to aid in the research and teaching of Wolfe and Butalia. Their work has transformed what otherwise would be millions of tons of solid waste into valuable components for cement and concrete road projects and other uses.
The professors started Ohio State’s Coal Combustion Products Program in 1997, assembling the Ohio Coal Development Office, coal-burning utilities, businesses, trade organizations and environmental groups to support the cause. Over the ensuing 22 years, Ohio has increased the beneficial use of CCRs from 20 percent of the total generated to 40 percent, diverting an estimated 75 million tons of waste from power plant landfills.
By 1998, Ohio State was working with the power industry and others on in-depth studies into the use of CCRs in the reclamation of coal mine sites. The partners had not, however, demonstrated the potential benefits with a full-scale pilot at an abandoned surface mine.
The significance of that potential — which Amaya helped researchers address — was, and still is, enormous. Coal is the fuel source for nearly one-third of the electricity generated in the United States. The nation’s electric power industry produces more than 100 million tons of CCRs annually, and Ohio’s share accounts for about 10 percent of that.
“When you look at this globally, we’re burning more fossil fuels on this planet while also using more renewables. We all know the world needs a lighter footprint from its energy production and use,” says Kate Bartter, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State. “If we can help companies manage this in a more environmentally friendly way, we’re saving them money and keeping communities from being impacted.”
Butalia describes the rationale for CCR diversion simply: “By scrubbing coal to meet air-quality standards, we are swapping an air pollution problem for a solid waste problem. The smarter way is to use that solid waste, the CCRs, to solve other problems.”
Surface mining creates highwalls, exposed faces of mined land that pose risks to workers or people who might use the land for hiking, hunting or riding ATVs. Mining can cause a range of environmental damage — including acid mine drainage, loss of ecology and diminished water quality. And it’s expensive for utilities to dispose of CCRs in company landfills. Diverting them to reclaim mine lands can help mitigate all of these problems, making the land safer for people and nature while saving utilities and their customers money.
To implement those large-scale mine reclamation projects, Ohio State worked with AEP and state regulators to choose and rate sites on environmental, economic and land ownership criteria. AEP’s Conesville and Cardinal power plants in eastern Ohio made the cut, and construction began in 2008.
While CCRs were being used in mine reclamation elsewhere, these projects are unique based on the in-depth water quality studies in place for 18 months before construction and a design that complements plantings of grasses with ample trees, which remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than smaller plants.
Our work has been of significant interest to national regulatory authorities, as we are able to compare pre- and post-reclamation water quality. As we continue our modeling work, we will be able to predict the long-term water quality impacts at such sites without the need to wait for 30 years of field monitoring Tarunjit Butalia
“Our work has been of significant interest to national regulatory authorities, as we are able to compare pre- and post-reclamation water quality,” Butalia says. “As we continue our modeling work, we will be able to predict the long-term water quality impacts at such sites without the need to wait for 30 years of field monitoring.”
The Ohio State-AEP mine reclamation projects employ CCRs to create a liner of calcium-rich materials that neutralize acid mine drainage and isolate the fill, also made of CCRs, from groundwater. The area is covered with a top layer of soil that had been removed to reach coal during mining operations. In devoting 1.7 million tons of CCRs to reclaim 22 acres near the Conesville plant, AEP avoided construction of a second landfill; the team used another 500,000 tons at a 10-acre Cardinal plant site. The CCRs diverted in those two projects alone are equal to 20 percent of the total that all eight Ohio coal-fired plants produced last year.
Ohio State committed to test surface and groundwater near the sites for five years after construction while training AEP to take the handoff to meet the federal 30-year monitoring requirement.
“Our intent is that once reclamation is completed, those lands will be restored to allow recreational activities,” Amaya says. Further research, he adds, will show whether the land could be used for business — solar farms or storage units, for example — to help the economically distressed areas where many mines are located.
Based on their lab studies, Butalia and Wolfe were confident that using CCRs in mine reclamation could provide environmental, safety and economic solutions. Their studies, however, weren’t large enough to persuade AEP or regulators that those hypotheses would materialize at the mine reclamation scale.
“You can’t go from our 6- by 2-inch lab scale to a full-scale implementation of 2 million tons in the field,” Butalia says. “To do that, you need an industrial partner who is invested in the future.”
It was, in fact, Amaya who proposed the solution: Build a larger model — called a bench scale — that bridges the gap between lab and field.
“When Pedro makes a suggestion, he is vested in it 100 percent,” Butalia says. “He doesn’t just give you the idea; he takes ownership and is willing to work with you hands-on.”
Amaya helped Butalia and his students build and test the bench model to prove that using CCRs instead of dirt to fill the abandoned mine lands would be geologically stable and solve certain environmental and economic problems without creating new ones.
The Ohio Coal Development Office, within the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA), has invested $10 million in Ohio State’s CCR research. Working with partners such as AEP, the university has contributed $20 million in actual and in-kind funding.
“Projects like this one that have strong partnerships between a large consumer of Ohio coal and an institution with expert researchers and educators are a model for how to find a viable solution for the use of coal combustion products and the mine reclamation process,” says Penny Martin of ODSA, noting the partners also help determine how the process can be replicated across the nation.
Now, utilities and others advocating alternative uses for CCRs face a new reality: Coal-fired power plants are shutting down because of the shift toward natural gas, facility costs and government. As a result, the U.S. is producing fewer CCRs.
Electricity generated by Ohio’s coal-fired power plants has fallen nearly 50 percent since 2008 — more than that of any other state — and additional declines are scheduled in the coming years, says Lanny Erdos, chief of ODNR’s Division of Mineral Resources Management.
AEP recently announced it is closing the Conesville plant, and it has transferred operation of the three Cardinal plant units to Buckeye Power. Butalia and Amaya hope to continue working at those sites, albeit under different circumstances.
Leaning back in a conference room chair at Ohio State, Amaya clearly feels as comfortable on campus as he is in an old friend’s den. Out pour stories about Buckeye connections beyond those he enjoys with Wolfe and Butalia.
Amaya met his wife, Marcela Mencl Amaya ’85 MS, when both were students here. She studied chemical engineering, and three of their children hold a combined seven Ohio State engineering degrees. Peter Amaya, who earned a master’s in civil engineering in 2012 and a master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering in 2014 and 2017, respectively, was a student of Butalia and Wolfe. Andrew Amaya earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from 2012 through 2017. And Maria Amaya, who graduated with a bachelor’s in environmental engineering in 2017, conducted research into CCRs in China with Butalia. The Amayas’ son Paul, who has special needs, is a “Buckeye at heart,” his father says proudly.
At end of the day, we’re educating the next generation to come out of this university really understanding the science, the culture, the social realities of all these things so they can be better informed citizens and more productive human beings. Kate Bartter
Pedro Amaya also returned to Ohio State classrooms for six years as an adjunct faculty member in civil engineering design. “I tried to provide students with my experience of what their potential employer would want them to know their first day on the job,” Amaya says, explaining how he used finished projects from his own career for assignments.
“Now, you are my students,” he told his students on the first day of each term. “Next, you will be my colleagues. So it is important that you pay attention.”
Indeed, Dan Murphy ’10 is now a senior engineer in Amaya’s department at AEP, where he provides civil engineering support for hydroelectric facilities and embankment dams. “What stood out to me was the practicality of the lessons we learned,” he says. “For that class, I was assigned to design the foundation for a parking structure in downtown Columbus. It turns out it was the parking garage I park in now every day at AEP.”
The Sustainability Institute’s Bartter says the Ohio State-AEP partnership in which Amaya plays a pivotal role helps students and faculty develop solutions that apply in a wide range of environments, from engineering to ethics to soil science. “At end of the day,” she says, “we’re educating the next generation to come out of this university really understanding the science, the culture, the social realities of all these things so they can be better informed citizens and more productive human beings.”
Ohio state invests in sustainable strategies
Faculty drive innovation
More than 600 faculty members and researchers across the university are involved in sustainability work, with 60 hired since 2015 through the Discovery Themes Initiative. Nearly 350 courses focus on sustainability issues, and another 700-plus touch on the topic. More than 80 student organizations address various aspects of sustainability.
Partnership adds efficiency
In 2017, Ohio State entered a 50-year, public-private partnership with Ohio State Energy Partners to manage the university’s energy systems. The $1.165 billion agreement represents the single largest investment in the university’s academic mission and provides opportunities for academic collaboration. Ohio State Energy Partners has committed to improve the energy efficiency of Columbus campus buildings by at least 25 percent within 10 years.
Sustainability institute launches
Reaffirming its dedication to solving complex challenges, Ohio State has established the Sustainability Institute to promote sustainability and resilience research, teaching and learning; build collaborations with public- and private-sector partners to develop and apply sustainable solutions; and integrate sustainability scholarships with campus activities and operations to engage students in research and experiential learning.
Sights set on zero-waste status
By 2025, Ohio State aims to achieve zero waste status, defined as diverting 90 percent or more of materials from landfills through recycling, repurposing and composting. It is off to a good start with Ohio Stadium, which has held the Big Ten’s No. 1 stadium diversion rate title for seven years running.
About the author
Joan Slattery Wall ’89
Joan Slattery Wall ’89 is an editor with the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State, for which she develops print, electronic and social media content.