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UAF Working Through ‘Minor Delays and Difficulties’ to Bring New Power Plant Online

KUAC file photo

University of Alaska Fairbanks officials say the problems they’ve encountered in getting the $245 million power plant fully operational have pushed the project behind schedule and over budget. But they think they’ve finally worked out most of the bugs, and they’ve come up with a new estimate on when the plant will be online.

Ever since UA President Jim Johnsen and about a hundred others got together last August to celebrate completion of the power plant, UAF officials have offered at least three predictions on when it will be fully operational. But as the commissioning continued and testing revealed additional problems with the new facility, university staff have had to recalculate their estimates.

“The plant has been experiencing a number of minor delays and difficulties as we bring it online – part of the complexities of bringing a large plant online,” Senior Project Manager Mike Ruckhaus said in an interview this week.

Ruckhaus says it’s not unusual to encounter glitches during testing of a new 17-megawatt power plant. He says they’re extremely complicated facilities designed to operate reliably for decades. And he says when problems are identified and fixed during commissioning, the plant’s performance improves, as shown in the most recent test run.

“We just finished a 10-day continuous run, and shut down for a relatively minor problem,” he said.

Ruckhaus says at this late stage of commissioning, each problem must be fixed in order for the testing to continue. He says the contractors now can no longer stop work on one system and go on to another while the problem is being fixed – the so-called workaround that people in the construction industry revert to in order to keep a project moving forward.

“At this point in the project, there’s very (few) workarounds,” he said. “We can’t do other work other work or proceed without solving each individual problem.”

Resorting to workarounds has helped limit the $245 million project’s cost overruns to around 2-million dollars, although a university spokesperson says that number likely will change by the time the project is completed. Likewise, Ruckhaus says it’s hard to estimate a power-plant project’s completion date, especially during commissioning.

“In developing estimates of when we’ll be done doing commissioning, it’s just based on a general understanding of how long things may take,” he said. “It’s very difficult to understand what problems may arise and how long it’ll take to solve them.”

Ruckhaus says a couple of critical tests will be conducted next month, and he’s optimistic that the power plant will perform well.

“We’re preparing for the performance tests and the emissions test, which we hope will be happening in mid-July.”

Ruckhaus says if all indeed goes well, he’s prepared to offer his latest estimate on when the power plant will be online: that is, sometime around the end of July.

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.