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Problems Discovered During Testing to Delay UAF Power Plant From Going Online 'til March

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The University of Alaska Fairbanks celebratedthe completion of the campus’s $245 million power plant back in August, in anticipation the facility would be online by the end of the year. But UAF officials say a structural problem that was repaired last month and a faulty electrical component discovered last weekend will keep the plant from going online until spring.

The extensive testing that’s conducted on new power plants is intended to among other things detect problems before the facility goes online. UAF Senior Project Manager Mike Ruckhaus says the project timeline must then be adjusted to allow the issues found so far to be resolved.

“With this current delay, we’re estimating the plant will be online sometime in March,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Ruckhaus says he and the contractor,  are working on plans for repairing the most recent problem that was detected during ongoing testing of the17-megawatt coal-fired power plant’s various operational systems.

“Just last Saturday, a major piece of electrical equipment failed,” he said, “and we’re investigating that, and developing a timeline for repair. But it’s likely to be at least a month.”

The electrical component that failed controls a large fan underneath the boiler that circulates air around the system. Ruckhaus says the problem was discovered during testing that resumed last month after workers fixed an earlier problem with a faulty I-beam that supported the structure on which the boiler sits. He says the beam buckled as the boiler was heating up after being ramped up to burn coal.

“The problem was investigated, the beam was redesigned and new beams were installed,” he said. “We had that all ready by mid-December, and then we were firing on coal, starting on December 19th.”

Ruckhaus says the repairs cost an estimated $200,000. But he says the university won’t have to pay that sum, because it’s covered by contingency provisions in the construction contract. And he says replacement of the faulty boiler fan component also won’t add to the project cost.

“The current work is warranteed by the manufacturer of the electrical equipment,” he said, “and there will some other delay costs, but they are accounted for in the contingency (provisions) of the contract.”

While the work continues, the university will rely on the aging Atkinson heat and power plant. University officials apporved building the new plant to replace the 45-year-old facility in the Atkinson Building, because of concerns a major failure during winter could put billions of dollars of equipment and infrastructure at risk. The campus got an unwelcome reminder of that risk early last month, when a small fire broke out in the part of the plant that handles the leftover ash from coal combustion.

“There was some minor damage to the roof during that incident,” he said. “The roofing materials caught on fire, so they had to replace the roofing.”

Ruckhaus says the fire didn’t put the university at risk. Nor did it require additional purchase of power from Golden Valley Electric Association, the utility that serves the region.

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.