New coal-fired plant to replace old boilers at UAF

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is building the nation’s only new coal plant, according to Reggie Greathouse, utilities superintendent for UAF. The $245 million project is intended to replace the University’s current main boilers due to possible risks of failure, while maintaining effective financial costs.

“It was determined through an evaluation that our old plant was older and the new construction process on the campus was outgrowing our capacity to provide services,” Greathouse said.

A number of factors played into the decision to build a coal-fired plant and among them are the efforts to increase efficiency, decrease emissions as well as avoid high maintenance and potential failure costs.

“We knew we needed to do something,” Charles Ward, director of utilities, said.” So we did a study and some preliminary costs for both operating costs and capital construction cost on about 11 different options before we went down this road, everywhere from burning natural gas in a boiler to burning natural gas in a turbine — we even looked at a nuclear option but that didn’t work out so well. So we did look at a lot of different options prior to selecting this coal option.”

Fairbanks, unlike Anchorage, relies more on the coal industry than the gas industry. Greathouse says that the University has no reliable and convenient access to a source of gas and coal has been considered to be the most practical option.

“Using an alternative fuel source was considered. Actually, there was a committee formed to determine what fuel source we would use,” Greathouse said. “The findings of the committee determined that coal was abundant, coal was mined here in Alaska and coal was our cheapest alternative to use to other fuel sources. To use something like natural gas with the amount that we needed or fuel oils were considerably [costlier] and to supply us, it would have to come from the Lower 48.”

The decision to use natural gas would pose logistical risks and a shutdown of operations if the transportation of supplies were interrupted.

Instead, the University is working with the Usibelli Coal Mine, who provides the coal by way of train cars.

Efficiency is an important aspect that was considered and Ward says that pollution and carbon emissions are no large concern.

“Fairbanks is what’s called a serious non-attainment area for PF 2.5, which is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. So we were able to permit this facility in Fairbanks by trading the emissions from our older coal-fired units,” Ward said. “We’ll basically be shutting down the old ones and starting up the new ones and effectively lowering emissions in the process.”

The demand for coal continues to exist despite the feasibility of a gas plant option. For Greathouse, it will stay this way until Fairbanks finds a way to utilize gas while having the access and cost efficiency.

“We’re pretty unique up here in the interior of Alaska because we don’t have a reliable supply for any of the power plants up here in the area to run anything other than coal,” Greathouse said. “I think that our future for coal here is very bright until natural gas or fuel oil – at the quantities that our power plant needs – can be either done here locally or at least in the state of Alaska and be more reliable. Right now we have to rely on a lot of products being shipped up from the Anchorage area to get to us when we deal with natural gas or fuel oil.”

Progress for the new coal-fired plant can be viewed online on UAF’s Combined Heat and Power Plant website along with live video streams and written updates. The Utilities Department hopes to reach completion by 2018.