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Spring 2006

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Feature

Full Steam Ahead

—Carol Cambo

John Mathews
Facilities planner John Mathews is project manager for the new central heating plant that is now under construction behind the Mullins Center.
AS HE ROLLS OUT SCHEMATICS of the central heating plant on a tabletop, John Mathews admits he’s most excited about the control room on the mezzanine of the new building. “It’s the heart and soul of the plant,” he explains. And he would know: John Mathews ’04G, assistant director of campus projects for Facilities and Campus Planning, www.umass.edu/fp/index.html is project manager for the plant. “There will be a bank of computer screens ergonomically arranged, with layered views so that technicians can survey systems, components, and subparts all at the same time. It’s like a cockpit.” As he describes the space-age command center, his eyes light up at the thought of all that engineering at one’s fingertips. It’s just that kind of real-time data and the fine-tuning it affords that will make its operation so efficient.

This futuristic facility will be a far cry from the current steam plant set in the gully behind the campus parking garage. Inside the dark, gritty space, hulking iron behemoths—60-year-old coal boilers and steam turbines—stand several stories high. When I come for a tour, Ted Carroll greets me in his hard hat. He first came here 25 years ago as a helper—a sweeper of coal ash. Now he runs the place.

“These machines are state of the art…for 1950,” he tells me. When something breaks, he must commission custom ironwork for parts no longer commercially available. Despite the machines’ vintage, they clearly inspire Carroll’s admiration, as evidenced in his reverent description of their operation. Coal is loaded from an overhead lorry; a fireman (the name for an operator) regulates the flow of air and fuel to make an efficient bed of fire; helpers clear the ash away on the basement level. Just three operators are on the job at any given time, so each activity is choreographed for efficiency. Carroll opens a door on the side of one of the boilers, and, through an eye protector, I see the lava-orange fire inside; at the heart of the glow it’s between 2,400 and 2,500 degrees.

Heat is one of those fundamental needs of human existence, especially for residents of northern climes, where winter brings cold temperatures for half the year. We grumble at energy prices, especially this past year as fuel costs seemed to rise with no end in sight. But heat is mostly an invisible necessity, something rarely considered—until you lose it.

“If the heating plant went inoperable for any length of time,” says Jim Cahill, director of Facilities and Campus Planning, “it would be like a body shutting down. The extremities of the campus—dorms in Southwest and Sylvan—would feel it first, then it would move inward.”

At UMass Amherst, where 30,000 people live, work, and study in 10 million square feet of space inside 200 buildings, heating and cooling is something Physical Plant employees think about a great deal. Especially since the heat hissing from our radiators comes from a plant that was built more than six decades ago. To put it plainly, says Cahill, “There is a real liability issue.”

That’s why UMass Amherst is building a new central heating plant, a cogeneration facility—one that produces both steam and electric power—that will be unique in design and one of the environmentally cleanest central heating plant projects in the United States. By March 2008, this monument to state-of-the-art technology will twinkle and hum behind the Mullins Center, satisfying all the campus’s heating and cooling needs and a large chunk of its electricity. But there are other good reasons to build this plant, including reduced emissions and, hopefully, healthy financial savings.

On the day I visit, the old plant burns a low-sulfur coal from West Virginia. Carroll’s firemen would prefer to burn coal every day because of its low price, but they switch among several other boilers that burn oil and gas, performing a never-ending tango to balance the campus’s needs with budget and emissions goals. There is brutal beauty in the plant’s simplicity and function. But in two years, this relic will be given its much-deserved mantel clock of retirement—and none too soon.

“When I came here over 20 years ago, there were rumblings for a new plant,” says Cahill. The talk then was already cogeneration; Bechtel Corporation came in and offered free steam to the campus in exchange for the power it would produce. “But the state wanted a study done,” says Cahill, “and Bechtel didn’t wait around.” Even that far back, he says, the study showed that the current plant was seriously fatigued. The legislature was slow to approve a cogeneration system because Northeast Utilities (now part of National Grid) had considerable lobbying muscle and UMass Amherst was its biggest customer. By the time the agreement was worked over, it was no longer palatable to an outside vendor.

“So the focus shifted to building just a steam plant, even though it seemed crazy not to generate electricity, too,” says Cahill. In the meantime, federal lawmakers deregulated power, making it more attractive to co-generate. Plans shifted again, taking into account the technology advances in the interim years. “Now we’ve got a good design, and we’ll have a great plant, even if it was a long time in coming,” says Cahill.

The new plant will be powered by oil and natural gas; coal, currently supplying half our heat on campus, will not be used at all. With this switch, we’ll cut campus carbon dioxide emissions to one-seventh of what they are now. Depending on the future prices of fuel and electricity, we could break even on what we pay to keep the campus up and running, even given the higher cost of natural gas compared with coal, according to Mathews.

Such success doesn’t come cheaply; the price tag for the total project is $118 million. But even factoring in growth of the campus, by the time the 20-year bond used to finance the project is paid in full, the new plant will still handily satisfy our needs.

This modern wonder will also be a destination for power and energy enthusiasts far and wide, says Mathews.

Professor Larry Ambs, www.ceere.org/ director of the Northeast Combined Heat & Power Application Center at UMass Amherst, agrees. “We hope to use this plant to publicize the center and the campus,” says Ambs. “We also plan to use it to teach our own students. Cogeneration is the last big frontier for conservation, and this plant puts us on the cutting edge of the technology.”

Ambs says mechanical engineering students will be able to link to the plant and use real data in their studies for such lessons as testing instrumentation, modeling scenarios, and troubleshooting mock failures or hiccups. In fact, it’s already been a learning experience for some students.

Daming Yang ‘05G wrote his thesis, “The Computerized Modeling of Performance Prediction for the Central Heating Plant of University of Massachusetts,” using 2001 data to model the new plant and see how it would perform depending on sizes and arrays of turbines. Now he is working in Buffalo, New York, doing the same kind of modeling for other cogeneration projects.

Ambs anticipates the new plant will present more opportunities for conservation education beyond the classroom. In 2004, Ambs, Mathews, and Jason Burbank of Physical Plant presented a paper for a UMass Sustainable Campus Initiative to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and rising energy costs. Ambs hopes the new plant sparks renewed interest in the campuswide initiative and channels energy of the human kind. “Once we harness students’ enthusiasm, we could get some exciting things done here.”


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Full Steam Ahead

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