May 7, 2009
Efficiencies mean college running out of steam
Campus explores geothermal heating, energy alternatives as it cuts natural gas use 25 percent
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Plant utilities assistant Calvin Mead explains the closed circuit hot water heating system on a catwalk Tuesday overlooking a large boiler room in SUNY Cortland’s heating plant.
Towering over the men who work on them, six massive boilers have heated SUNY Cortland’s campus since the 1950s, providing heat to the campus through a central steam system.
Four of them can each pump 13,000 pounds of steam per hour and two, which are bigger, can pump 20,000 pounds per hour.
But these days, only two of the four smaller boilers are operating, as the campus moves away from central steam toward other energy sources.
“This will all be phased out in the years ahead, as every building gets its own boiler,” said Steve Lundberg, physical plant assistant director, during a tour of the plant Wednesday.
He pointed out orange pipes on the boilers’ sides that carry natural gas as fuel, next to brown pipes that used to carry oil.
The college’s 16 residence halls and 18 academic buildings will be installed with high-efficiency condensing boilers.
Meanwhile, the college — which has cut its natural gas use by 25 percent since 1990 — has been exploring geothermal energy as a heating source.
A geothermal pump was tested recently next to Studio West, the classroom and office building next to Park Center that will be renovated and expanded next year. The test showed that geothermal wells can indeed be used to heat the building, said Timothy Slack, SUNY Cortland’s physical plant director.
The college will also use geothermal pumps for its new Student Life Center, which will be constructed somewhere near Park Center and the old Chugger Davis Field in the next few years. The Student Life Center is entering the design phase, Slack said.
The college’s old heating system has been maintained so well for over 50 years that it has operated long past its life expectancy, which was about 30 years when it was installed in 1953, Slack said.
The money saved from new ways to heat buildings will be used to purchase alternative forms of electrical power, such as windmill power, Slack said. This will reduce the college’s “carbon footprint,” or environmental impact, while saving money, he said.
Slack said changing the heating system to be more energy efficient has cut SUNY Cortland’s natural gas use by $500,000 per year, reducing the cost of heating buildings to $2.5 million per year. The college uses about $3 million in electrical power.
Slack and Lundquist said the old system survived because of the staff’s dedication.
“Since I moved here from Maryland four years ago, one thing that impresses me about this college is the people who were here the last 50 years,” he said. “People of the highest quality, just the best people around. People who care about the system.”
Central steam was the technology of choice when the system was built, Slack said, because it provided the most heat during Northeast winters for buildings and heating ducts that have since been altered.
“Now we have efficiencies in energy usage, so we don’t need that system,” Slack said. “Even with this old equipment, we are one of the most energy-efficient campuses in SUNY. Other colleges are trying to reach the point we’re at.”
College President Erik Bitterbaum joined 625 other college presidents around the nation in signing the Presidents’ Climate Challenge two years ago, promising to reduce SUNY Cortland’s energy usage and find “green” energy sources.
Slack, who came to the college from St. Mary’s College said savings in natural gas usage could be used to underwrite the cost of green electricity such as windmill power, which costs about 20 percent more than regular electric power.
“The college could cut its carbon footprint in half in just four years,” he said.
A geothermal heat pump system is a central heating and/or air conditioning system that pumps heat to or from about 400 feet beneath the ground, using the earth as either a source of heat in the winter or as a coolant in the summer. This design takes advantage of moderate temperatures in the shallow ground to boost efficiency and reduce operational costs.
Slack said SUNY Cortland would tap into windmill farms built in Cortland County, if and when that happens.
“Other than using it as an academic project, we would not have a windmill here on campus,” he said. “But we could go into a long-term contract with someone who does.”
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