Keeping the lights on: An ongoing report of local power conditions
Uploaded: Tuesday, February 6, 2001 2 p.m.

Stanford plugs into its own power
Campus cogeneration plant protects campus from blackouts

by Bill D'Agostino

Early last week, graduate students living in apartment complexes on Stanford University's campus lost power for less than 15 minutes. Rolling blackout? No, just a simple technical failure.

Most students and even faculty probably don't know what's encased in the three cream-colored buildings housed on the corner of Campus Drive and Via Ortega. They may look like Lego-pieces emitting steam from their protruding tops, but the buildings actually play an essential role in campus life.

Inside is a cogeneration power plant that keeps the campus powered and heated.

So, while much of the Midpenisula endured power shortages and rolling blackouts, Stanford's lights and computers stayed on, uninterrupted.

The plant is owned and operated by Cardinal Cogen, a subsidiary of General Electric. It burns natural gas to create electricity--which runs a turbine--while also creating exhaust heat.

In conventional power plants, heat gets created and wasted. At the cogeneration plant, however, the heat is run through a Heat Recovery Steam Generator so it can be transformed into steam.

This steam serves three functions. It gets looped around campus for heating and cooking. It drives chillers which produce cooled water. It also drives its own turbine, creating yet more electricity.

The combined effort of the gas--driven turbine and the steam-driven turbine generates nearly 50 megawatts of power, almost twice as much as Stanford needs. Cardinal sells the remainder to PG&E for the general grid.

"We are part of the solution, not part of the problem," wrote Stanford President John Hennessy and Associate Vice Provost Chris Christofferson in a letter to to the Stanford community about energy conservation.

The plant is particularly efficient because the power producer and consumer is at the same site. As a result, no energy is lost through the resistance of power wires.

The plant is, in fact, so successful that Stanford has the lowest energy consumption per gross square foot of any research university in California.

Could this be a potential solution to the state's energy crisis? Not likely. The cost of the equipment is so high, it only makes financial sense for businesses with large-scale heating needs (such as universities and commercial laundry facilities).

The only other such plants in the area are used by UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University.

Not all of the Stanford campus gets its power from the power plant. The faculty residential area is served by PG&E. The medical center, which is within Palo Alto city limits, gets its power from the city.

Another energy saving feature of the campus is The Ice Plant, located near the Cogen plant under the Jordon Way parking lot. The plant provides the campus with air conditioning by storing ice created by the steam chillers. Because it uses most of its energy at night during off-peak hours, cheaper and more economical energy is used.

Stanford itself built the ice plant in 1999 and it is controlled entirely by computers. Inside, more than 100,000 ton-hours of ice (the equivalent of 8 million pounds of ice) can be stored.

Stanford was approached by General Electric to create the cogeneration plant in the early 1980s. Up until that time, the university had used a boiler plant, which still provides backup power when the gas turbine isn't running.

The university finally commissioned the plant in 1987, and it's cost was $66.5 million. It was finished in April 1988 and has been running smoothly and efficiently ever since.

Well, almost.

In 1996, rats crawled through an underground conduit connecting the plant to the main parts of campus and caused an explosion. This, combined with another technical failure, created a major blackout, leaving much of the campus stranded without power for many hours.

No other major blackouts have occurred since.

Since the 1980s, Stanford has spent millions of dollars to make the university more energy efficient. Initially, the program focused on efforts that didn't have a direct effect on community members' lives.

Once the latest power crisis began, the university redoubled its efforts, educating the campus on energy-saving efforts, and asking residents to turn out lights not in use.

"By saving energy that we use," Christofferson said, "we can provide more to the public."


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