University of Vermont

Snowy Day

Central Heating and Cooling Plant

by Katharan M Blofson, Clean Energy Fund Education & Outreach Graduate Assistant

Just before Valentine’s Day, Gioia (Director of the Office of Sustainability) and I headed to the Central Heating and Cooling Plant, housed in the brick annex just behind the Royal Tyler Theatre in the middle of campus.   Walk through the unassuming red door in the rear of the building, and the sound of the massive boilers is overwhelming: we had to shout our greeting to Michael Wells, Supervisor and Operating Engineer.  It was a mild day (characteristic of winter 2012 in Vermont), and two of the plant’s five boilers, fueled by natural gas, were powering space heating and hot water for the entire campus.  The boilers—huge steel boxes that towered above us—use natural gas to heat water and generate the steam that feeds heating coils, hot water heaters, and laboratory equipment like sterilizers and humidifiers.  A maze of pipes adorned the walls and ceiling, and I felt a little bit like I was looking at the digestive tract of some great beast.

Mike Wells has worked at the plant for over thirty years (he’ll retire in two years to the toy and gift shop that he and his wife run in Jericho), coming to UVM after his Navy training as a “BT” (Boiler Technician).  In fact, a couple of the operating engineers at CHCP have backgrounds as Navy BTs.  They’re at the plant 24-7, and after seeing some of the complex workings of this extensive campus system—not to mention the huge blazing fires in the boilers—I’m glad of it.  And there will be job openings at the plant sometime soon, as two of the operating engineers are retiring in the next few years (Mike included), although it’s not that easy to find people with the kind of specialized skills and experience required to run a system like that at CHCP .

Gioia and Mike talked me through the workings of the system, which has made major efficiency upgrades over the past couple of years.  CHCP serves nearly every building on campus.  Water (condensed steam that has run through building systems) is pumped back to CHCP from buildings around campus through a miles-long network of underground pipes.  At CHCP, it’s “polished” (sediment & minerals are removed) and fed into the boilers, which heat it and turn it back into steam.  The steam is then pressurized and sent to buildings, where it powers space heating (or air conditioning), hot water generation, and scientific research.  CHCP purchases natural gas from Vermont Gas, which comes to us via a transcontinental pipeline from Alberta in Canada, to fuel the boilers and create the steam. 

CHCP also provides summer cooling with two steam-driven chillers installed in 2007, the first of their kind in Vermont.  Because they're powered by steam rather than electricity, the chillers don't put strain on the regional energy grid during summer's peak electricity demand times.  The chillers remove heat from the water; this "waste heat" is emitted through cooling towers to the outside air, and pumps push the chilled water around campus in an underground network of pipes laid alongside the steam pipes.  Many, but not all, campus buildings are on CHCP's cooling loop. 

Campus infrastructure and technology upgrades over past few years have made significant contributions to efficiency.  Between 2000 and 2005, over five miles of the underground pipes that transport steam around campus were replaced.  The new pipes are far better insulated and reduce heat loss to the ground, dramatically reducing fuel consumption.  Since 2003, CHCP's peak output has decreased more than 10%.

New buildings like Jeffords and Aiken have sophisticated temperature monitoring and control systems that reduce energy consumption, and improvements have been made in building envelopes and energy efficiency management.  And UVM just signed on to the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, establishing a $13 million dollar revolving loan fund to finance on-campus energy efficiency improvements. 

So while UVM has expanded dramatically since 2005, adding over 500,000 square feet with new buildings like Davis and Jeffords, the campus is using less fuel per capita and per square foot.  Total natural gas use on campus (CHCP fuel consumption for heating and cooling comprises the bulk of that) releases nearly 32,000 metric tons of CO2 each year.  UVM’s Climate Action Plan goal aims for carbon neutrality in heating and cooling by 2020. 

The enigneers at CHCP are always open to visitors and game to give tours of the plant, and their technical knowledge is impressive—they’re happy to get into detailed explanations of how CHCP works, and the measures UVM is taking to increase efficiency and reduce fuel consumption.