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‘Getting Ready to Roll’: UAF’s New Power Plant Testing Nears; Facility Could Go Online in Fall

KUAC file photo

Construction work on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s new coal-fired powerplant is complete and workers are preparing for the first test of a major component by the end of the month. If all goes as planned, the $245-million plant should be fully operational around Thanksgiving.

UAF Senior Project Manager Mike Ruckhaus says workers are now double-checking the many systems that will control the new powerplant in preparation of upcoming tests on its turbine. That’s the steam-powered component that’ll generate up to 17 megawatts of energy that’ll produce both heat and electricity.

“We’ve been concentrating on auxiliary systems within the plan,” Ruckhaus said. “And we’re getting ready to roll the turbine using steam from the Atkinson plant in the next couple of weeks.”

The Atkinson plant is the nearly 55-year-old coal-fired facility that’s exceeded its useful life. University officials have wanted to replace the old 10-megawatt plant for more than a decade over concernsthat a major failure during cold weather like one in 1998 could endanger billions of dollars’ worth of campus infrastructure.

Ruckhaus says once the new plant located next door to the Atkinson is completed, many of the old plant’s systems will still be used.

“The only big change to it is the two coal-fired boilers will be decommissioned,” he said. “The oil-boilers and the existing turbine remain as backup to the new plant. And there’s a lot of auxiliary systems – compressed air, condensate and water-treatment – that are still active in the old plant.”

Ruckhaus says the old plant’s two remaining oil-fired boilers could produce enough heat for the campus in case the new plant had to be shut down. And he says the university would then buy power from the local utility.

“Certainly the old plant can provide all our heat needs,” he said, “and we could supplement with power from Golden Valley, if need be, in a backup situation.”

Credit UAF
The new UAF power plant was built next to the Atkinson Building, which houses the old power plant. The two facilities are connected by an above-ground walkway and will share utility connections because many of the auxiliary systems in the old plant will continue to be used.

Ruckhaus says if all checks out with the new plant’s turbine tests, the major milestone will come next month, when its boiler will be fired up for the first time – using a different fuel.

“The initial firings are actually on natural gas, then we’ll transition into solid-fuel combustion soon thereafter,” he said, “So it’ll be late August by the time we get into firing with the solid fuel in the boiler.”

The solid fuel, of course, is coal. It’s cheap and readily available from the Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy. University officials in recent years have touted plans to also burn woody biomass, such as slash or pellets, in the new plant. That was proposed in part to allay environmental concerns about building a coal-fired power plant – the only such facility to be built in the United States in decades. The main concern is over the climate-changing impact of the estimated 132,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent the new plant will emit annually. But Ruckhaus says plans to use biomass are now on the backburner.

Plans calls for using Usibelli coal to fuel the new plant, he said. “It is permitted to use up to 15 percent biomass,” he added. “We currently are not planning on using biomass. But it could be introduced in the future.”

Ruckhaus says coal will be phased-in during the boiler tests to displace the natural gas fuel. And he says if all goes as planned, the new plant will be online and producing heat and power by late November.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.