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UMass Central Heating Plant Will Fuel the Campus — and the Imagination
John Mathews

John Mathews says the new CHP at UMass will bring what he calls “net gains” for the environment.

Ground was broken last month for a new, $118 million central heating plant at UMass Amherst. The facility will replace a 1950s-vintage coal-burning plant that has been obsolete for decades, and will be environmentally friendly in every way — from its unique exterior design to equipment that will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

John Mathews now keeps a pair of binoculars near the window in his cubicle on the third floor of the Physical Plant Building at UMass Amherst.

He’ll use them to help chart the progress of the $118 million central heating plant, or CHP as it’s called, now taking shape roughly 500 yards to the west.

athews, assistant director of Campus Projects, Facilities & Campus Planning, has a decent view of the construction site, which lies just beyond the Mullins Center, and the early-stage work being done (ground was broken May 12).

But he’ll be doing most of his monitoring efforts up close and personal.

Indeed, Mathews has been working on the effort to build a replacement for the university’s World War II-era, coal-burning heating plant for about a decade now, and, as this initiative’s project manager, he is responsible for making sure the facility is built according to specifications.

Those would be the specs laid out in the foot-thick stack of books and hundreds of diagrams that also occupy Mathew’s work space and represent nearly seven years of work to finalize designs for the plant, scheduled to go on line in the spring of 2008.

As he talked about those designs and specific features of the 14-megawatt plant, Mathews used the terms unique and state of the art early and often. And he applied them to describe everything from the facility’s look — more like a field house than a co-generation plant — to its operations room, complete with something called a “circular cockpit.”

But the most significant features of the plant will be its efficiency and environmentally friendly nature, said Mathews, who is coordinating the planning, design, and construction of a number of projects on campus. He noted that the facility will generate more energy per pound of fuel burned than the current plant, despite the fact that the fuels to be used — oil and natural gas — are much more expensive than coal.

Meanwhile, the plant will use advanced combustion turbine burners and other equipment that will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and will recycle municipal wastewater plant effluent for boiler make-up water, reducing the demand on the public drinking water system in Amherst by nearly 200,000 gallons daily.

“There will be net gains for the environment,” said Mathews, noting that some of the steam-turbine technology and pollution-control equipment included in the plant’s design have rarely, if ever, been used in combination before. “We’ll be using less fuel to create more energy and we’re recycling wastewater for the plant’s primary source of water.

“Massachusetts DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) has one of most stringent air-quality standards in the country, next to Southern California,” he continued. “We’ve been told by our consultants, who permit these facilities across the nation, that, for this-size facility, we’ll have one of the cleanest-burning plants in the United States.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how this important project came together, and why the new plant is fueling the imagination — in more ways than one.

Letting off Steam

Mathews told BusinessWest that the plant currently heating the university’s 200 buildings and roughly 10 million square feet of space has been essentially obsolete since the late ’70s.

The oldest remaining components of the plant date back to the early 20th century, he explained, adding that while there have been some additions and upgrades over the years as the campus has witnessed exponential growth, most equipment has been in place since the Truman administration.

“The control board should go to the Smithsonian when it’s retired,” he joked. “That’s how old and outdated it is; it goes back to the 1930s. This plant was good in its day … but technology has changed significantly over the past 50 years.”

Economics and logistics have been the primary hurdles to building a replacement and fully utilizing advanced technology, Mathews noted, adding that both have been cleared over the past few years, with progress essentially mandated by a state order to cease all coal-burning operations by 2008.

The UMass Building Authority is bonding for the CHP project — and others now in various stages of completion around campus, said Mathews, adding that the $118 million price tag covers design, construction, project management, permitting, new steam lines, and demolition of the existing plant. Meanwhile, after a lengthy search, a site was found in the northwest corner of the university, on land that actually sits in the town of Hadley, only a few hundred yards from Amherst’s wastewater treatment facility.

The diversion of 180,000 gallons of that wastewater (roughly 11% of the daily volume) to the new plant, where it will be treated to drinking-level quality, is merely one of the facility’s many environmentally friendly characteristics, said Mathews, noting that there are many.

Others include selective catalytic reduction, or SCR, technology to control the emissions of nitrous oxide (the precursor to ozone), and oxidation catalysts to control carbon monoxide emissions. The plant will also employ what are known as low-NOx burners in its 10-megawatt gas turbine to further reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

The pollution-control technology is but one aspect of the plant that could be characterized as state-of-the-art, said Mathews, who told BusinessWest that some of the equipment included in the plant’s design is being put to use for the first time in this country.

“We permitted technology back in 2002 that did not exist, that was not commercially available,” he said. “When this plant goes on line with its gas turbine with its advanced burner design, it will be one of the first times it’s ever been used.”

Work on the design and specifications of the new CHP began in 1999, said Mathews, adding that project leaders hired Boston-based R.G. Vanderweil Engineers, a leading designer of heating plant facilities, to help blueprint the new facility.

The assembled team looked at a number of existing plants around the country and also studied emerging technology, he explained, with the goal of designing the most efficient system possible for the generation of steam and electricity with the same pound of fuel.

The new plant, roughly one-tenth the size of the Mount Tom Power Plant in Holyoke, a 150-megawatt facility, will feature a combustion gas turbine, similar to a jet engine, capable of producing 10 million watts of electricity, said Mathews. Steam generated by a heat recovery boiler that captures the hot (900º) exhaust from the gas turbine is then sent to a steam turbine generator, which creates another four megawatts of electricity.

The 14-megawatt total covers roughly 80% of the campus-wide electrical need, with the rest purchased from other suppliers. It would not be cost-effective to build a plant to meet 100% of the electricity needs, Mathews explained, adding that the peak usage occurs in only a few weeks of the year.

The steam generator and three auxiliary ‘package boilers,’ as they’re called, will produce 450,000 pounds of steam per hour for on-campus consumption, meeting 100% of demand. Two 20-inch main steam-transmission lines will connect the plant to the existing campus steam-distribution system and its 30 miles of pipes, while new lines are being constructed to take steam to a new dormitory complex in the northeast corner of the campus.

All facets of construction are being led by lead construction manager, O & G Industries, said Mathews, adding that the Torrington-Conn.-based company has recently built new central heating plants for the University of Connecticut and the University of New Hampshire.

Sound Advice

While project leaders set out to build a plant that was ultra modern, efficient, and environmentally friendly, they also wanted to create a facility that would effectively co-exist with the university and the surrounding neighborhoods.

And this meant paying close attention to everything from aesthetics (exterior design) to noise control, said Mathews.

For the former, project leaders turned to Cambridge Seven Associates, the architectural firm that designed the Mullins Center and drew inspiration from that arena for the CHP. The company eventually came up with a field-house-like design that features a large sloping roof covering both the 45,000-square-foot plant and the adjacent fuel farm.

Meanwhile, the front of the plant will feature a glass wall, permitting passersby to see the equipment and operations taking place inside.

“It’s designed to fit into a campus setting,” said Mathews. “It’s a beautiful structure.”

As for noise, Mathews said it was a subject of much discussion among project managers, neighbors, and campus officials. The new plant will sit roughly 1,400 feet from the nearest residence, and will be near the Mullins Center, the school’s baseball stadium, and a number of playing fields used for intramural sports. Project leaders didn’t want any of those constituencies bothered by noise.

“This was a very big issue for us; we didn’t want to impact neighborhoods or the playing fields,” he said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to control noise both inside the plant and what might be emitted from the plant.”

These include everything from silencers in duct work and on louvers that penetrate the building wall, to the design and thickness of windows, he said, adding that several noise models were created to help ensure that increases in noise would be barely perceptible, if at all.

Considerable time and effort were also spent on the design of the control room on the plant’s second floor, what Mathews called the “heart and soul” of the facility. He said operators can see 360 degrees around the plant and, through the use of video technology, “layer down,” as he put it, to see specific operations and the equipment used for them.

“We designed it ergometrically so that an operator, with computer screens in a circle around him, can see the entire plant at once,” he explained, applying the term ‘circular cockpit’ to describe the work space. “He can see the plant through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and with the computer screens he can drill down to four levels of controls.

“There’s a lot of engineering and technology at his or her fingertips,” he continued. “And that will enable the operator to make sure the plant is running at peak efficiency at all times.”

The carefully choreographed timetable for plant construction and start-up calls for the installation of process equipment, including the control room, starting in the spring of 2007, with the first firing of the boilers to come that fall. To follow will be roughly six months of commissioning and acceptance testing.

If all goes as planned, the new plant will be fully operational, and demolition will commence on the current facility, in the spring of 2008.

Taking the Heat

By then, Mathews can put away the binoculars. They’ve seen limited use thus far — work since ground breaking has been confined to foundation-pouring and other preliminary work.

He’ll no doubt use them more when steel is erected — it’s due to arrive later this month — and for other steps in the construction process.

And with them, he’ll not only get a look at a construction site, but a view to the future of heating plant technology.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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