U floats $81M power plant revamp plan

Adding a heat and power plant could help the U reach energy goals.

by Hailey Colwell


A proposed $81 million renovation to the Old Main facility near campus could help the University of Minnesota reach its long-term sustainability goals.

The addition of a combined heat and power plant to the building, which is currently used for storage, would be completed by winter 2015 if approved by the Board of Regents.

University workers, environmentalists and Marcy-Holmes residents gathered Thursday to discuss updates to Facilities Management’s plans for designing the multi-utility plant in the facility.

Located near the Education Sciences Building on the University’s East Bank, the Old Main site houses a decommissioned steam plant. For the past year, University Facilities Management has discussed renovating the inside of the plant to provide heat and electricity to the University more sustainably and cost-effectively.

In May 2012, the Minnesota State Legislature approved $64.1 million in bonding to allow the University to update aging utilities. Though Facilities Management asked for the Legislature to fund two-thirds of the combined heat and power project, it approved $10
million in funding for design and initial equipment purchases.    

The project’s remaining cost of $70 million will be paid for with bonds from the University.

Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president of Facilities Management, said pending budget approval from regents, the project will be assessed for environmental impact before beginning the projected two-year construction phase.

The University currently generates heat and electricity at the Southeast Steam Plant  near the Stone Arch Bridge. Though the plant was renovated as recently as 2000, it still uses two 1940s-era boilers. Burning fuel with the current system causes a great deal of potential heat energy to be lost, Berthelsen said.

Having a secondary plant near campus would minimize the risks of having a single source of steam for the Minneapolis campus, he said. It would also allow the University to have a backup steam source if a decision is made to decommission the Southeast Steam Plant and move to a new facility in the future.

Berthelsen said the project would also keep the University on schedule for its climate action plan, which outlines specific steps for the University to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

The new equipment would allow the facility to capture excess heat produced during the electricity-generation process, making it more cost-efficient and green, Berthelsen said.

 “You get two uses instead of one, and it’s a lot more efficient. Given our sustainability pledge, this is the right thing to do,” Berthelsen said. “It seems to be one of those win-win-win opportunities for us.”

Joshua Low, organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, said the group supports the project because it falls in line with the University’s climate action plan to stop using coal as an energy source.

The club will continue to examine the heat and power plant project as it develops, he said.

“We’re keeping an eye on it, and we’re looking to make sure that the University continues to implement a very positive climate action plan.”

The combined heat and power plant is an essential step in achieving the University’s energy efficiency standards for the future, said Amy Short, sustainability director for the University.

“We have a lot of challenges in meeting our goals.” she said, “This is a very integral part of that plan.”

Tony Fussy, who works in the University’s Learning Abroad Center and used to live near the Old Main facility, said he attended Thursday’s meeting to find out how Facilities Management’s plans will deal with the equipment on top of the building and whether or not it will add smokestacks to the roof.

Fussy said he’s interested in how the refurbished facility would look next to the recently renovated Education Sciences Building.

“We spend all this money to replace these buildings, and we’ve got this kind of, for lack of a better term, [ugly] building that’s still left.”

Facilities Management plans to submit the project for regents’ review by February.