Old boilers revived in record-cold pinch

Originally expected to go online this month, the $41 million Grimes Way Steam Plant will instead start up in May, said Ev Davis, executive director of Facility Operations at Washington State University.

Difficulties and delays in completing the Distributed Control System, which will integrate the new Grimes Way Steam Plant and the existing College Avenue Steam Plant, are responsible for the postponement, said Energy Plant Manager Mike Nearing.

In the meantime, the campus is being heated by three existing boilers at the College Avenue Steam Plant on the west edge of the Pullman campus. Those include one coal-fired boiler and two natural gas-fired boilers.

The aging steam plant, originally built in 1937, is used for heat, hot water, sterilization of medical equipment, greenhouse climate control and air conditioning, as well as 2.4 megawatts of electrical generation.

Two years ago, the campus installed two new high-efficiency boilers at the College Avenue facility. Fired by natural gas, they were designed to support the ailing system until a new energy plant could be built. That addition brought the total number of campus boilers to eight. The other three are decommissioned coal boilers.

In December, Facilities Management got thrown a curve ball. Installation of the new electronic control system (that eventually will allow the energy plant on Grimes Way to work cooperatively with other boilers at College Avenue) failed to function as expected. This resulted in only three active boilers at a time when temperatures plummeted to a near-record low of -20 Fahrenheit.

To add to the already difficult situation, Nearing said, the mine in Utah where WSU gets its coal has been unable to deliver orders, and a recent train derailment near Colfax has delayed the arrival of coal to the College Avenue Steam Plant.

However, he said, thanks to the expertise of the College Avenue operations and maintenance crew, the old system ran at full capacity and continued to provide the crucial heat necessary for WSU to operate.

When the new Grimes Way Steam Plant goes online, it will be fueled by natural gas or diesel fuel, whichever is more economical. The era of using coal to fire university boilers will end.

A century of coal
For more than a century, coal has been one of the primary heating sources for the university, as it once was for Pullman and cities and towns across the nation. Just a few years after the university opened its doors in 1892, coal use began on campus, said history buff Verne Munn of WSU Facilities Operations’ Utility Division.

One of Munn’s duties is entering WSU daily fuel uses into a computerized database. His predecessors recorded similar information in ledgers. Munn has seen coal purchase and use records for WSU dating back to the 1930s.

The old power plant has been used since about 1935. It replaced a plant located near Daggy Hall, said Pullman’s Bruce Rutherford, who worked 30 years at the university, including 1966-1976 as Physical Plant (now Facilities Operations) director.

In the early years, WSU’s coal was purchased on state contract from mines in Washington. Later, and to this day, coal has come from Utah by train.

“At the time the steam plant was built, it would fire only sulfur coal,” Rutherford said. “In the early 1950s, some boilers were converted to burn either coal or natural gas. Several years later, heavy industrial fuel oil was also added along with adequate above-ground storage facilities.

The Grimes Way Steam Plant will include three boilers, each capable of producing over 82,000 pounds of steam per hour. The plant will also include three reciprocating internal combustion engine generators with a combined generation capacity of almost four megawatts of electrical power. Although the generators are primarily for emergency and critical needs during power outages, they also can be operated in parallel with Avista electrical service for peak savings and supplemental power generation.

Although coal will no longer be used by the university, the College Avenue Steam Plant will remain in place. Two natural gas-fired boilers there will be used as a remotely controlled satellite facility. Together with the Grimes Way facility, the two plants will supply all of the campus’ steam needs, Nearing said.

“The end of coal use at WSU is definitely a historical milestone. Coal is the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution, not only in this country but the world,” said Munn.

The new plant will be a state-of-the-art facility providing “increased fuel and operating efficiencies with energy conservation and environmental quality improvements,” said Nearing. “It will be a safe and reliable source for the university’s present day and future steam and electricity needs.”