Power struggle with UAF plant

Daniel Thoman / Sun Star Reporter
March 1, 2011

A new and horrible screeching noise pierced the afternoon. An email was sent out with a cursory explanation and a request to conserve power. These were the only clues that most at UAF had that something had gone wrong at the university power plant.

According to Charles Ward, Director of Utilities at UAF, the power plant’s issues started on Monday afternoon. One of the circuit boards that monitors the voltage regulation of the main turbine failed outright. This led to the turbine having to be shut down; thus, no electricity or heat could be generated. Ward said that while this was the biggest problem the power plant has faced, he also cautioned that the power plant was going to have more issues as it is in the 47th year of its original projected 50-year lifespan. “Life-extending” procedures have been done in some areas and are underway in others, but the ultimate determining factor for the plant’s life is the state of the pipes. It is unknown exactly when they will fail.

While no one off-campus receives power from the UAF plant, the campus receives almost 97 percent of its heat and 85 percent of its electricity from the plant. The rest of the power is bought from Golden Valley Electric Association. As the plant was down, all of the power and heat had to be bought, resulting in a bill of more than $130,000 to the University.

Ward also said that the University has been looking into various alternative sources of power for some time. Options include not only solid fuel, but also natural gas, which would be significantly cheaper if the proposed gas pipeline becomes a reality.

UAF isn’t the only group interested in changing how the power plant functions. The Northern Alaska Environmental Center is also looking at the impact that a coal-fired plant has on the environment especially in a location that is “the epicenter of climate research,” according to Jessie Petersen, the Renewable Energy Program Director at the Center. Petersen pointed out the large amounts of sulfur and other pollutants that the power plant puts out daily. She hoped that UAF would pursue a green energy program, but admits that finding a workable energy source was a “billion-dollar question.” She also said that biomass, solar during the summer, wind, and even tidal energy could be looked at as possibilities. Petersen expressed hope that this would be one more step that UAF takes on its road to being a greener university.

One thing everyone agrees on is that any of the changes that will take place cannot and will not happen overnight. Either a major renovation or a completely new building would be required, which would be expensive. Petersen said that the university should look at the overhaul as an investment rather than anything else because they are protecting themselves from the environmental hazards of the plant and the cost of future repairs.

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