UND exploring major overhaul of steam plant infrastructure
The UND steam plant was alit with activity Wednesday as boilers fired, coal dropped and heat radiated to the far reaches of campus.
Like the machines within it, the plant too has been in motion over the course of its long life, said facility manager Craig Machart. The facility has expanded above the earth as its underground lines do the same below, and now an ongoing process gathering steam of its own could see a major, campuswide shift in operations for the UND heating network.
Facilities head Mike Pieper said the scope of the effort is more than just hot air.
"At the end of the day, I don't think it's a steam solution—it's an energy solution," said Pieper.
The university is in the early stages of plotting out a long-term future for steam production, delivery and demand that should correspond with the university's ongoing master planning process.
The plant was identified in 2014 as being in need of major capital investments and rose as a priority through planning initiatives carried out in 2016. Those plans suggested a $20 million set of boiler repairs and replacements. According to Machart, the oldest boiler in the plant has been firing along since 1952. The newest coal-fired boiler was installed in 1978.
Rather than jump into replacing the coal or gas-powered machines, the university's facilities leaders instead began an exploration of a more thorough overhaul. Pieper said that would likely include a central focus on increasing efficiencies both within the plant itself and in the various campus buildings that pipe in steam.
To pull that off, the university submitted in September a request for proposals to build out that major view of what could be.
"We're asking the question with no parameters," said Pieper, saying the university was leaving itself open to all options—provided they fit UND needs for steam production and economic value. That late-summer request brought in three proposals, one of which, from Minnkota Power Cooperative, would outsource steam production completely, eliminating the need for the current plant on campus. Though Pieper said the full transfer option is "still on the table," school leaders chose to move forward with a proposal from Johnson Controls that the facilities chief described as "more UND-driven" and would likely keep the plant where it is.
The Johnson agreement also includes a team of engineering contractors such as local consulting firm AE2S. The UND acceptance of their proposal has led to a partnership that should take the university to the end of a roughly four-month "discovery period" that would likely culminate in February with a more narrow set of options. Moving from there, Pieper said the crew will enter a "pre-development" phase to solidify a plan before looking into design and construction. The process is extended somewhat by the fact the plant is subject to regulations from the EPA. All in all, Pieper expects the full arc of pre-construction to be complete within a three- to five-year timetable.
A major goal of the overhaul is to complete all the necessary work without drawing any additional dollars from the state, a feat Pieper said is possible with a long enough time horizon. The UND plant sells steam to a portfolio of outside entities—including Altru Health System, Lake Agassiz Elementary School and the North Dakota School for the Blind—and could likely pay back their engineering contractors with what Pieper compares to a "lease to own" situation carried out over as long as 50 years.
Though the in-depth planning process is itself relatively new, facilities leaders say the push to update the steam system has been a long time in the making.
"These dialogues are bringing old conversations to the table," said Pieper.