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UVM Investigating Electricity Cogeneration

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published December 3, 2003

Central Steam Plant
Planners are considering a cogeneration options to squeeze efficient, clean power out of the central steam plant. (Photo: Physical Plant Department)

Behind all the new ideas planned for the university — a student center, the 800-bed University Heights dormitories, a 300,000-square-foot life sciences building, renovation of the George D. Aiken Center for Natural Resources, and more — is a five-letter word: power.

Not power as in "powerful ideas," but the power that runs generators, boilers, air conditioners, furnaces and generally keeps things humming. Where will the university get the money and the energy to power all these new projects? And an even more complicated question: Is it possible to grow the university without increasing the amount of power it takes to run it? These are the questions that a group of interested UVM faculty, students, engineers and physical plant experts volleyed on Nov. 21 in an informal meeting at the Aiken Center.

“We’re trying to reduce our electrical use on campus so that as we expand facilities we don’t use more electricity. We want expansion to be energy-cost-neutral,” began Salvatore Chiarelli, director of UVM’s physical plant.

Chiarelli provided the background for remarks from Steve Schray of Turbosteam Corporation, who was invited to explain how UVM could convert backpressure steam, which is a byproduct of the university’s existing boiler system, into electricity. The practice of generating heat and power simultaneously is called cogeneration.

Turbosteam, a Turners Falls, Mass.-based company designs, manufactures and installs turbine-generator sets that are compatible with steam heating and cooling systems. These turbines convert the expansion of steam from high pressure to low pressure, and then mechanical turbines convert that pressure into electricity.

“It allows electricity generation at about triple the efficiency of the national average,” said Schray. “This is really the reason to do it — higher efficiency translates into cost savings.”

“The other reason is that it reduces pollution by displacing dirtier electricity,” said Gary Hawley, organizer of the meeting and a senior researcher at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Some of the hurdles to turbine installation might include unusual conditions and system configurations, long-term savings versus initial costs, objections of utility providers and state and local regulations, Schray said.

At least 10 colleges and universities have installed these backsteam cogeneration systems, including the University of Wisconsin, University of Maryland and Carnegie Mellon University. Colby College in Waterville, Me. installed one as a backup during winter storm power outages and now saves $186,000 in energy costs, according to Turbosteam promotional material. UVM’s Vermont neighbor, Middlebury College, installed a system in 2000 that produces “100 percent of the college’s heating, over 80 percent of its cooling and 13 percent of its electricity load,” said Schray.

Schray and Chiarelli made some rough estimates based on the size of UVM’s boiler system that a cogeneration system here would cost around $500,000 to generate 1,000 kilowatts of electricity. Chiarelli pointed out that university wide, an installation such as this would not have been cost effective until last summer when UVM added chillers to cool buildings and now runs the steam system year round.

“I think it’s exciting that we’re pushing forward to see if it’s going to work,” said Hawley.

“We’re seriously thinking about it,” said Chiarelli. “Very seriously.”