A bittersweet day: UND unloads last load of coal into old steam plant

Tyler Ekstrom, an operator at the UND Steam Plant, checks the firebox on a boiler at the plant Monday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

As the last pile of coal was unloaded into UND’s old steam plant Monday morning, with it went more than 100 years of university history.

When that coal is consumed in the coming days, plant manager Craig Machart says it will be a “bittersweet” day.

After all, Machart said, “coal’s kept this campus going for more than 130 years.”

While not the sole source of energy for the campus, coal has powered the university through its infancy, from when it was shoveled into Chandler Hall in the early days of campus, all the way through trepidation after the 1997 flood. Now, the last of the coal will be burned as the campus makes drastic adjustments amid the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic and the end of the plant are not related, but it's just one more university chapter the old facility has seen over the past century.

The current steam plant was built in 1909.


“It has powered generation, heat, humidification, steam kettles for cooking, sterilization, hot water,” Machart said. “It’s definitely been a livelihood for the campus for many years.”

Gone are the days when coal was physically shoveled into the boilers, Machart said. The coal being burned this week was brought in from Montana; the plant originally used lignite coal, which is found in North Dakota. But burning lignite had associated issues, from the ash to its variance in output.

With this last pile of coal comes a new, and greener, era for UND, one with a slightly smaller footprint. A new facility, which should come online in the coming months, will be a natural gas facility with five boilers that were placed last summer. It’s a much simpler setup than the current facility, which employs boilers that date back to the 1950s.

The old facility was effectively stitched together as campus grew, a new boiler being added each time the campus needed to boost its energy capacity. The pieced-together nature of the old building is apparent.

The new building is an approximately $75 million facility that will lighten a large amount of deferred maintenance from UND’s budget. The project is enabled by a 40-year public-private partnership with Johnson Controls, established by UND to improve operations. It was done without extra funds from the North Dakota Legislature.

Mark Johnson, director of operations with UND facilities, said the new plant will have to connect to the distribution pipes already set up through the old steam plant, noting much of that work already has been done. At a date that is to be determined, the old plant will be turned off and the new one will be turned on, with little to no disruption. Later, the old plant will be demolished.

“It's seamless,” he said. "Nobody will really know that it's been changed."

Annually, Johnson Controls says the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40,000 metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 74 square miles of forest -- essentially the size of Grand Forks and Fargo combined. The project also will reduce landfill waste by 3,200 metric tons of ash.


The old steam plant has helped power Altru and other nearby schools. That will continue with the new facility.

Sydney Mook has been the news editor at the Post Bulletin since June 2023. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook was previously with the Grand Forks Herald from May 2018 to June 2023. She served as the Herald's managing editor, as well as the higher education reporter.

For story pitches contact her at or call her at 507-285-7771.
What To Read Next
Get Local