Power plant to get new lease on life

Jeremia Schrock / Sun Star Reporter
June 6, 2011

The Atkinson Power Plant as seen from the railroad track which supplies the facility with coal. The facility is nearing the end of it's 50 year life span. Jeremia Schrock/Sun Star

Last week, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents (BOR) approved a two-track plan for maintaining and ultimately replacing the University of Alaska – Fairbanks’s (UAF) Atkinson Heat and Power Plant. The plant, built in 1964, provides heat, light and water to the UAF campus and is nearing the end of its 50 year life span.

In a discussion with the boards Facilities and Land Management Committee, Chancellor Brian Rogers stated that the aging plant has already forced UAF to purchase heating oil on several occasions. UAF currently spends roughly $7 million a year on coal. Rogers added that closing the plant for a year (and purchasing heating oil instead of coal) would raise the universities heating costs to $33 million.

During the discussion, Rogers stated that by the time the plant needed replacing, he had hoped natural gas would be a viable option. “We can’t wait much longer to see if it will,” he said.

Rogers noted the opposition to coal power on campus, but stated that the only realistic alternative to coal would be natural gas. Due to the lack of natural gas development, Rogers said that the only viable economic option was the continued use of coal.

UA President Patrick Gamble added that the loss of power during the middle of winter would have a devastating effect on the university. If power were lost during a cold snap, students would be forced to find new homes and countless research projects would be irreparably damaged. “We could never handle the heat” of such a public relations mess he said, adding that the only thing keeping the plant going is the people who work there.

The first part of UAF’s two-track plan involves maintaining the current plant while a permit and financing are secured for a new facility. The estimated cost of maintaining the plant is $40 million over the next five to seven years.

However, maintaining the current plant is easier said then done. “We’re starting to label the power plant ‘the house of horrors’,” said Scott Bell, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities. Bell stated that some parts of the power plant are difficult-to-impossible to access while the plant is fully up-and-running. That means UAF may not know something is wrong until the plant has already begun to fail.

The new facility is estimated to cost between $140-$180 million. According to Rogers, if UAF can construct the new facility within the next seven years, the campus may be able to avoid spending the entire $40 million allotted for maintenance. The proposed addition would allow UAF to replace the power plants boilers and turbine while reducing the number of improvements actively needed.

Regent Robert Martin stated that he was “ready to support whatever it takes to get a new plant.”

“The need is clear and palpable,” said Regent Kirk Wickersham. “You could explain it in one sentence to anybody.”

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