FAIRBANKS — University of Alaska President Pat Gamble winces a bit at the topic, describing it as a “head-hurting kind of problem.”
When temperatures get cold this winter, the thing that will give Gamble restless sleep won’t necessarily be graduation rates or tight budgets. Gamble will be wondering whether nearly every building on the Fairbanks campus can maintain its heat and power.
The Atkinson Heat and Power Plant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was built in 1964 and was given an estimated 50-year life span. Forty-seven years later, it’s already suffered through one near-catastrophic failure and a handful of other worrisome maintenance issues.
Campus officials are hoping it makes it past the half-century mark and are worrying about the aging system each step of the way.
It’s become a persistent enough concern that UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers has developed a catch phrase for the consequences of its failure: “Freezing in the dark.”
Despite the dire words, a new power plant won’t be coming online anytime soon. Under the most optimistic timeline, it’ll be at least seven years before a roughly $200 million upgrade is providing heat and electricity to UAF. The tentative long-term plan from the UA Board of Regents pushes back that schedule an entire decade.
Until then, keeping an eye on the UAF power plant will become a tense annual winter activity.
“The reality is, when it gets to 40 below this winter, we’re going to sweat,” Gamble said.
Failure is an unfortunate option
The consequences of a power-plant failure at UAF are huge and not entirely theoretical.
Mike Ruckhaus, the UAF Facilities Services senior project manager, pulls out a cardboard box sitting in a corner of a conference room in the power plant. It’s filled with pipes and tubes in various states of decay, a collection he jokingly calls the “house of horrors.”
There are miles of pipes that run through the heat and power plant, and future additions to Ruckhaus’ collection could be almost anywhere.
Charles “Chilkoot” Ward, the UAF Division of Utilities director, still vividly remembers the events of Dec. 11, 1998, when the plant experienced a sudden near-collapse. Without warning, a pipe in Boiler No. 1 burst, instantly filling the power plant with steam, burning coal particles and ash.
“It was raining in our electrical distribution system,” Ward said. “There was an inch of water on the floor.”
A complete disaster was avoided largely through blind luck. The steam shorted out a fluorescent light, which caused a short in the uninterrupted power supply, causing the plant to stop generating steam. If that hadn’t occurred, a total power plant failure would have occurred and taken weeks to repair, possibly longer.
Even the resulting 10-hour shutdown was close to a fiasco. Campus officials were less than an hour from evacuating most of the rapidly cooling buildings at UAF, and just several more hours away from dealing with subzero temperatures and bursting water pipes, when they were able to restart the plant.
Ward said it put an exclamation point on the condition of the aging facility. The years since the near-failure have been devoted more to tracking down pieces of the system that are close to failure.
Last year alone, 22 tubes in one of the plant’s coal-fire boilers were replaced at a cost of $1 million. But the plant still has several weak points, which have been dubbed “single points of failure” for their ability to bring down the entire plant. A system that removes oxygen from the plant’s water supply has never been replaced, or even fully inspected, since it was installed in 1964. The electrical system at the plant is non-compliant with modern codes, and its on-site location leaves it vulnerable to chain-reaction failures.
Officials expect to spend about $40 million in the next several years to upgrade some of those systems enough to keep the plant running reliably. About half of those funds will simply serve as a bandage — they’ll patch together pieces that will vanish once the plant is fully upgraded.
Ruckhaus said it’s one of the best arguments for a new facility. Adding patches to an old, inefficient system will eventually destroy the plant’s budget.
“Over time, it’s the cost to keep it running that sinks you,” he said.
A hefty price tag
A new plant will come with an estimated $200 million price tag, making it the largest capital project in the history of the University of Alaska system. Of that, only $3 million for permitting and design work has been acquired.
While acknowledging it will be a “difficult lift” to convince the Legislature to drop $200 million on a new power plant, UAF Executive Officer Bob Shefchik said the administration will be able to make a strong argument.
The boilers at the power plant create high-pressure steam that is fed into a turbine to create electricity and fed through a series of underground pipes to heat virtually every building on campus.
In short, the system keeps a massive investment from freezing and going dark.
“The consequences are pretty big,” Shefchik said. “It not only protects the operations but the 3 million square feet of assets the state owns.”
But the cost isn’t the only obstacle. Through years of waiting for a gas pipeline to come to Fairbanks, it’s become more evident that the most likely fuel source for the new plant will be coal.
In the existing plant, two coal boilers work exclusively to generate heat and power. During the winter months, they’re joined by one or two additional oil boilers, which allow the power plant to reach peak loads of as much as 10 megawatts of electricity.
UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said the campus has reviewed its options for fuel sources at a new plant, including trucked gas, solar, wind and even a small nuclear battery. In the end, she said, coal jumps out as the only cost-effective option.
A coal-fired boiler costs UAF about $8 million a year to supply, compared to $25 million for natural gas or $33 million for oil at current prices. About 85 percent of the energy on campus is currently generated by coal — using the equivalent of two railroad cars a day — with the rest comprised of oil and natural gas.
“The difference financially is stark,” she said. “It’s not even close.”
The permitting process for a new coal plant is certain to result in opposition — and possible lawsuits — from environmental groups, which could push back the construction timeline even further. Meanwhile, Gamble said it’s becoming difficult to wait for a gas line that may never arrive.
“We’re almost at the point where any choice that we come in with is going to be the wrong choice in many people’s eyes,” he said.
Ward argues the new plant will actually be a big environmental upgrade, even if coal is the fuel of choice.
When the new plant is built, the existing oil boilers will be upgraded so they can accept natural gas or biomass. The coal boilers will be replaced with new, more efficient models. Ward figures the new plant, built with updated technology, will save 10 to 20 percent in fuel costs.
And when compared with the alternative — pouring time, money and fuel into the aging Atkinson Heat and Power Plant — he believes the choice becomes clearer.
“I’m an optimistic guy, but this plant will fail,” Ward said. “It’s just a matter of where and how badly.”