Repairs and replacement clouds power plant’s future

Fred Monrean/Sun Star Reporter
Sept. 27, 2011

As the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) nears its centennial in 2017, one of its most important issues will be ensuring that its energy needs are met in the decades to come, according to UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers.

With the aging coal-burning power plant in need of refurbishing, officials at gatherings from Board of Regents meetings to convocation have brought replacement up as a topic of concern If UAF gets funding from the state Senate, the new power plant could be completely operational just in time for the university’s 100th birthday.

“We’ve requested $22 million for actual design of what’s likely to be upwards of a $200 million project,” Chancellor Rogers announced during convocation Sept. 13. “Without a new plant we’ll need to spend $40 million cobbling together temporary expensive patches to a system nearing the end of its useful life,” he said.

The $40 million option would be used to keep the plant going for a little while longer if construction on the new plant does not begin soon, university public information officer Marmian Grimes said in an interview Sept. 22.

“If you look at this plant we got about $40 million worth of repairs,” Grimes said. “You know just regular maintenance and repairs that are going to be needed in the next few years to keep it going.” 

A large portion of that cost would go toward replacing pipes. These pipes cool the multi-story coal burning machines, which turn water into steam. Steam both heats and provides most of the power to the university. UAF will need to start replacing pipes by 2015 if construction of the new plant is not underway by then.

Director of Utilities Charlie “Chilkoot” Ward left the room briefly when asked what his choice would be — a $40 million repair job or a $200 million new plant? — and returned with a short length of steel pipe recently removed from one of the boilers. He pointed to one end of the four-foot-long pipe and said,  “If you were to take a thickness-measuring device and try to measure the thickness of the tube on this end, you would say that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Next he showed how the other end of the pipe had worn down from the inside out, becoming almost paper thin.  From the outside, even on the very thin end of the pipe, there was no visible deformation.

“We could spend a lot of money chasing down things like this, and patching them,” Ward said, “and miss that.”

The pipe, when in place, is surrounded by an insulating material and “you would never actually have found it until it broke,” Ward said.

The $200 million plant will likely go next to the current plant and will utilize much of the existing infrastructure.  The turbine generator, which was installed in the 1980s and produces much of the school’s electricity, will stay, as will the building.  It’s likely that the oil-burning boiler will stay, and possibly be converted to run off of natural gas.

The new plant would be powered by a few units that use air pressure to ensure the solid fuels fed into it are combusted by circulating granules of the fuel around until they are ash, Ward said.  These new boilers will be more efficient than the current ones, which will mean less fuel needs to be burned, causing fewer emissions.  There will also be less cost to operate because less fuel — which will largely remain largely — will need to be purchased.

Approximately, $3 million is budgeted for obtaining the necessary permits and a preliminary design of this project.  No official plans have materialized at this point.


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