Power Grab: UAF's aging power plant gets a $25-million bandage

Lakeidra Chavis/Sun Star Reporter
Feb. 28, 2012

The new switchgear is in an extension of the Energy Technology building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There are two identical rooms containing switchgears to prevent power failure on campus, Feb. 24, 2012. Michelle Strehl/Sun Star

The UA Board of Regents recently approved the second phase of electrical upgrades for the UAF Atkinson heat and power plant. The upgrades will prolong the life of the Atkinson power plant, which was built in 1964.

The regents approved the upgrades the week of Feb. 13 as the second installment of a two-part plan to improve and prolong the life of the plant. The phase will complete the work for the electrical project, the regents originally approved last spring. The goal is to improve and eventually replace the existing heat and power plant.

Part of the funding for the project comes from a deferred maintenance allocation set aside in Gov. Sean Parnell’s 2013 operating budget. Deferred maintenance refers to needed repairs or upgrades that are put off, or deferred, because funding isn’t available. The University of Alaska currently has an estimated $750 million in deferred maintenance.

So far, the upgrades have cost $25 million. The recently-approved additional $24.3 million will be spent to upgrade the entire electrical distribution center, said Mike Ruckhaus, the project manager.

The current plant consists of two coal-fired boilers and two oil-fired boilers. The boilers heat water until it becomes high-pressure steam. The steam then runs through a turbine, creating electricity.  Steam left over from this process heats campus buildings. The coal-fired boilers were installed in 1964,  and are “at the end of their useful life,”Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Scott Bell said.

“Originally, this was designed as a heating plant, not a power plant,” Ruckhaus said.  “Then they added the power functions to it. You typically don’t put the electrical search gear in the same place that you are producing steam for heat.”

The current electrical system, which is located in the Atkinson power plant on lower campus, consists of power generators that have only 4,000 volts. The electrical system is in a room called a switchgear room. As a part of the second phase, a new switchgear building was built with power generators capable of producing up to 12,000 volts. However, though the new equipment was installed, the wiring remains unfinished. That means no new power generation. It will be another year and a half to two years before the upgrade actually generates power for UAF, Bell said.

“All of these improvements, in essence, are very complex because you’re trying to keep electricity and heat to the campus active at all times,” Ruckhaus said.

Since the upgrades are a year-long project, most of the outages are planned during the summer and winter months when there is less activity on campus. Most of the electrical upgrade includes work that’s underneath the ground on campus.

In 1998, a boiler tube blew inside one of the boilers and the steam mixed with the electrical gear, causing the 10-hour electricity and heat outage across campus.

Since then, efforts to improve and repair the heat and power plant have continued for more than a decade. Getting approval for funding for the plant has been the main reason for the delay.

However, the upgrades can only prolong the life of the plant. After the second phase of the electrical upgrades are complete, a new power plant will be built. The plant would cost an estimated $100-$175 million and is a few years away, Bell said. The state legislature still needs to approve funding for the new plant.

“We are in the permitting phase, the very beginning phase of the project,” Ruckhaus said.

When the new power plant is built, the two oil-fired boilers will serve as backups. The new power plant would be constructed near the greenhouse between the heat and power plant and the Facilities Services building.

“We could spend at upward of $40 million improving this and you could probably extend the life of  the plant like 10 or 15 years,” Ruckhaus said, “Forty million dollars is not a very good investment for something that will limp along for another 10 or 15 years.”


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