UAF Hosts Ceremony to Inaugurate new Combined Heat and Power Plant

Tents erected for Wednesday’s event at the former site of the UAF Greenhouse, which was dismantled to make way for the new Combined Heat & Power Plant.

About 200 people celebrated the near-completion of the nation’s first coal-fired power plant in a decade at UAF with a ceremonial flip of a switch last Wednesday, August 29. The event included speeches from a state Senator and the President of Usibelli Coal Mine, which has long supplied coal to the university power plant. 

“I thought a lot about what this means to the university,” said UA President Jim Johnson, who also spoke at the celebration, “It means the merging of state of the art technology and responsible natural resource development.”

The event also included a ceremonial switch-flipping event, though the plant is not expected to be fully operational until the end of November. Currently, the different systems are being tested independently.

Though the event on Wednesday was celebratory, UAF Public Information Officer Marmian Grimes acknowledged some mixed feelings about building a coal power plant at a time when about 27 such plants have closed since 2017, according to the Sierra Club.

“We certainly recognize that this is unusual to be building a new coal plant in late 2015,” she said in a phone interview, “but for Fairbanks, and for the university, that option made the most sense from the economic, logistical and even an environmental standpoint. The new plant does greatly reduce emissions.”

Guests at Wednesday’s event listen and learn about the new plant.

The 9-story power plant uses a circulating fluidized-bed technology, a more efficient industry standard, instead of the Atkinson Power Plant’s stoker boiler, a technology that dates back to the 1890s. Project engineer Piotr Sawka estimated that the new boiler would use about 20% less coal per unit of electricity produced.

Particulate emissions, which are a major health concern in winter in Fairbanks, will be reduced by an estimated 45%, according to the project website, as will other contaminants such as sulfur dioxide.

“This plant is designed to have the lowest emissions of any plant in the US,” said Scott Bell, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities Services. It also is permitted to run on up to 15% biomass, though so far the university has not found a reliable source, according to Grimes. It also has the potential to be retrofitted to burn more than that, or, with a little more invested, be converted to natural gas, should it become more cheaply available.

Construction teams broke ground on the project in early 2014, but the origins date back to December 11, 1998, when a pipe from one of the coal-fired boilers burst, shattering windows in the plant and shuttering electricity and heat to buildings across campus. Power wasn’t restored for 12 hours, but the incident stoked Mike Ruckhaus, a Senior Project Manager along with Utilities Director Chilkoot Ward to begin investigating alternatives to the old Atkinson plant that was nearing the end of its planned 50-year operational life.

Ruckhaus showed off his commemorative t-shirt from the time at Wednesday’s ceremony, which read “Where were you when the lights went out?”

Speakers on Wednesday elaborated its ability to secure the $245 million in funding in a time of tight budgets, though they acknowledged the project was not without hiccups. A major one occurred when Ruckhaus and his team were working on a comprehensive project estimate and realized that they were about $50 million over their $245 million budget. By slashing the administrative room from the plan and leaving the room designed to house the biomass turbine empty, the administrators were able to cut the costs back to within the original estimate.

“You can’t do those things because I sit here and tell somebody to do that,” said Ruckhaus “there has to be a level of cooperation.”

While the mood Wednesday was of celebratory students and faculty interviewed by the Sun Star had mixed emotions about the plant.  

“It’s a pretty impressive structure–it’s huge and state of the art!” said Sherjeel Cheema, an Electrical Engineering Sr. who interned at Chugach Electric in Anchorage last summer and was at Wednesday’s event, “Of course you always want the greenest technology and the cleanest fuel, but in Fairbanks coal is the only fuel that is economical.”

The new plant is linked to the old Atkinson Power Plant through an elevated tunnel, allowing workers easy access to between the plants.

Computer Science professor Jonathan Metzger brushed off any criticism of the plant. “It [coal] is more efficient than it’s ever been,” he said, “It’s not like you can put wind up here–I don’t think anyone wants to build a nuclear power plant up here!”

Wenshi Fraser, a civil engineering Junior, was more critical and expressed an interest in seeing more investment in renewable energy. “I like that it’s fitted for other options,” she said, referring to the potential to retrofit the plant to burn more biofuel or natural gas, “But it is what it is.”

Fraser said that although she found the building to be an eyesore each day when she walks from her residency at the Sustainable Village, she has come to appreciate it for a paradoxical reason. 

“I like that it’s right in front of you so that people can decide what they want their future to look like,” she said, ‘It is a good reminder since it is right in front of you every time you come onto campus.”