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UAF Celebrates New Power Plant That Replaces Unreliable 56-year-old Facility

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Officials with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and more than a hundred invited guests gathered Wednesday at UAF to celebrate completion of the $245 million power plant. The coal-fired facility will generate 17 megawatts of electricity and produce enough steam to heat the campus. It’ll replace the 56-year-old power plant that was becoming increasingly undependable.

University President Jim Johnsen told the crowd just outside the new power plant that its completion marks the end of a long process that began nearly 20 years ago.

“This is a great day that many of us have been looking forward to since 1998,” he said.

That’s about when university officials first realized the campus’s old power plant, built in 1962, would have to be replaced. Those concerns were heightened in December 1998, when a component in the old plant failed, knocking out both heat and power for hours and putting the campus at risk of freezing up.

“Twenty years of planning and study and analysis,” Johnsen said. “Twenty years of worry that that plant would go down. Twenty years of hard work of keeping it together in the harshest climate on the planet.”

UAF Chancellor Dan White said the 1998 incident and others since then have demonstrated that a catastrophic failure at the old plant would put billions of dollars of infrastructure at risk.

“We just couldn’t afford risking all of the infrastructure, all of the educational experience, on a plant that was at or exceeding its design life,” White said.

The aging power plant also could’ve jeopardized federal funding for research, Michael Castellini, the interim dean of UAF’s Graduate School, said in an interview after the event.

“You now run the risk of saying you’re going to not be able to do the type of research you want to do,” he said, “because you can’t guarantee a stable power source, then the value of the research that’s lost – not just in dollars, but the value of the information that is lost – is phenomenal.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
UAF officials and others who were involved or supported UAF's bid to build the new power plant prepare to throw a switch that, like a ribbon-cutting, symbolizes completion of work on the facility. From left: UA President Jim Johnsen, UAF Director of Utilities Chilkoot Ward, Usibelli Coal Mine President Joe Usibelli Jr., state Sen. Pete Kelly, UAF Chancellor Dan White, UAF Senior Project Manager Mike Ruckhaus.

Johnsen says that shouldn’t be a concern anymore now that the new facility is completed.

“This is going to power, provide the light and the heat, for the world’s number-one Arctic research university today and for many, many years to come,” he said.

The new plant also will boost business for Usibelli Coal Mine, says company President Joe Usibelli.Jr. He said after the event that the new plant will burn a bit more coal than the old one. And he says coal sales will increase as UAF builds more facilities.

“We are figuring that it’s about a wash to begin with,” Usibelli said. But that will grow over time, as the university and campus grows.”

But burning all that coal will emit carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change. University officials say the new plant is fitted with state-of-the-art technology that’ll reduce some of the new plant’s emissions, including PM2.5. But it’ll still emit an estimated 132,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Castellini and others at UAF say they still have reservations about that. “The reservations are always there,” he said.

Castellini headed up much of UAF’s research on the impact of climate change on the Arctic in his role as Dean of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Including work done aboard the Sikuliaq, the National Science Foundation-funded research vessel that he helped bring to UAF. But He says the university had no other viable fuel source for the new plant other than coal. And he says the greater good is served by building the plant, so the research can continue.

“We know that we’ve got a problem on the planet, that we utilize fossil-fuel resources,” he said. “But, we know we need heat and power. The goal is to try and figure out how to minimize it.”

University officials say the plant still is undergoing testing and other work and won’t go online until December.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled UA President Jim Johnsen's name.

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.