Chiller plant location gets lukewarm reaction

After more than five years of discussion and proposals, preliminary plans are underway and a prospective site has been determined for a centralized chiller plant on the St. Paul campus.

Cost estimates for the plant – which would eventually connect all buildings and more efficiently provide cooling – are based on a prospective location: a spot south of the campus’ steam plant, near the Sarita Wetland.

If a plant is not built, most of the chillers on campus would have to be replaced, and that would be much more costly, said Orlyn Miller, assistant director of the planning and programming office.

“If we don’t get moving we’ll lose the opportunity to connect the buildings,” Miller said.

While the location might be changed, he said that site – east of the transitway and adjacent to the Sarita Wetland – probably would be chosen.

Students and faculty involved in the Sarita Wetland Restoration project have concerns about a plant’s impact but also see possible benefits.

Suzanne Savanick, coordinator of the Sustainable Campus Initiative Committee, said the biggest possible problem is noise, which could bother birds and other animals and disrupt efforts to maintain wetland wildlife.

A building at the site could also add runoff to the wetland – due to a growing number of paved areas nearby – and threaten SCIC plans to install a settling pond in front of Sarita, she said.

Juan Bartolomei, principal plant engineer for Facilities Management, said noise levels generated by fans in the plant’s cooling tower would be lower than background noise in nearby neighborhoods.

He said plans call for runoff in the area to be directed away from the wetland, and the plant would not eliminate area available for a settling pond.

Jim Perry, a fisheries and wildlife professor who has been involved with SCIC, said a new plant could allow for runoff problems to be addressed at their source rather than just at the wetland.

Connecting all the buildings to the plant through underground piping, will require much of the campus to be dug up, he said.

When those holes are filled, Perry said, grading on the landscape could be altered or rain gardens could be installed, redirecting and slowing down campus runoff.

“We’ll have a chance to change the landscape of campus,” he said.

Jerome Malquist, assistant director of energy management for Facilities Management and part of the SCIC, agreed.

“This can’t do anything but help the Sarita cause,” he said.

Current plans call for a plant to house five large chillers that would and be linked to campus buildings, Malquist said.

Buildings on the St. Paul campus have their own chillers, but many of them are nearing or beyond their functional lifespan.

Of 38 chillers used on the St. Paul campus, Malquist said, 32 “are in dire need of replacement in the next six years”.

He said while no failures have occurred on the St. Paul campus, the chillers kept working only because of intensive and costly maintenance.

Annual maintenance on the aging chillers costs nearly $146,000 more than current industry
standards, said Bartolomei.

He said because of energy codes and the space existing chillers occupy, new chillers would have to be electrically powered. This is expensive and would mean those
buildings would have little power for other needs, he said.

“There are efficiencies to be gained by centralizing all that cooling,” Malquist said.

Much of the efficiency, he said, would come in maintenance- and operation-cost savings.

Without accounting for inflation, Malquist said a central plant, rather than replacing the chillers, would save the University $9 million over the next 25 years.

Furthermore, the new buildings on campus, such as the genomics building, have stand-alone systems but were built so they could eventually be connected to a central plant.

Bartolomei said those buildings would benefit in case of a breakdown, since they could receive cooling either from the central plant or their own chillers.

Funds for the first phase of the project – which would build the plant and install two chillers – total about $18.7 million and will be part of the University’s capital request, he said.

Over the next eight years in three more phases and funding requests, three more chillers would be installed and more buildings would be connected under the plan.

Tom Ford covers St. Paul and welcomes comments at [email protected]