Power to the plant: Impact of a failure

Kaz Alvarez/ Sun Star Reporter

April 22, 2014


This article is part two of a four part series focusing on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Atkinson Heat and Power Plant.


Coal stove fueling one of two coal-fed boilers to generate electricity and heat providing steam. Kaz Alvarez/ Sun Star

Coal stove fueling one of two coal-fed boilers to generate electricity and heat providing steam. Kaz Alvarez/ Sun Star

Efforts to upgrade the current combined heat and power plant are intended to prevent statewide consequences from occurring should the plant have a long-term failure.

The first long-term failure lasted 12 hours in December, 1998. A pipe burst in the plant and filled the building with steam. All employees were forced to evacuate the building and were unable to access the control panel immediately to shut down operations. The University of Alaska Fairbanks was forced to rely on GVEA for electricity.

The university is built to be heated by steam generated in the plant. When the power plant failed in 1998, the university was unable to supply heat to campus. There is a diesel boiler on backup that was available at the time to pick up some of the slack.

A study was performed by GLHN Architects and Engineers Inc. in 2006 that looked at various methods of supplying heat and power to an area. The study recognized that continued growth would outrun the capacity of the current power supply as well as fuel supply and cost as fundamental issues faced by the combined heat and power plant. It was decided that the combined heat and power model remained most efficient.

“It was looking for the best decision, not only economically but feasibly,” said Chilkoot Ward, Facilities Services Director of Utilities. “It looked at a bunch of different options. Do we continue with a centralized model for distribution or put individual boilers in each building? Based on economics and other factors, it was decided that we continue with the combined method.”

Condensed water is piped through two coal fired burners and one oil burner to generate steam. The steam then goes on to turn a turbine and generate electricity for UAF and is piped through the buildings for heat.

According to the study, the best fit for UAF will be the renewal and expansion of the Atkinson Plant. The study supported coal as the primary fuel source. This recommendation was made with the next 20 years of growth in mind.

Should problems with the combined heat and power plant continue and another long-term failure occurs in the summer, GVEA can be relied on for electricity. However, a winter failure would cause many critical facilities to go without heat until the Atkinson Plant recovered. The impact of a failure would be statewide since many administrative offices are headquartered in the Butrovich building.

“If the outage included heat and if it were winter, then the campus would have to consider mission and research critical areas and deploy resources accordingly,” Kate Ripley, UA public affairs director said. “Students would be our top concern. Employee paychecks and other business functions such as accounts payable/receivable would take secondary importance over student health and safety. Sensitive research would be another top concern at UAF.”

“If the legislation doesn’t fund it, the problem is not going away,” Ward said. “One of our options was to keep spending millions of dollars to keep patching the facility. The problem with that is that it is still too small to meet the current needs, let alone the future’s.”

Senate Bill 119 was introduced to the Alaska Senate January 22, 2014 and allocated $2.2 billion to various projects, infrastructure and departments. The bill was read for the first time to House Representatives April 13, 2014 with $245 million put toward a new plant. Currently the bill is up for negotiation between House and Senate representatives.

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