Heating up: The UW’s soon-to-be-completed Charter Street power plant renovation offers benefits beyond the academic

The long-planned-for and costly renovation of the UW’s Charter Street power plant may seem to offer little more than a fleeting “wow” factor for the local business community and Madison residents, but like many UW projects, its import stretches well beyond the university’s walls.

Launched in response to a 2007 Sierra Club lawsuit, which alleged that emissions from the coal-fired plant violated the Clean Air Act, the project was originally slated to incorporate biomass along with natural gas-burning capabilities and would have been the most expensive single building project in the university’s history. Last November, incoming Gov. Scott Walker scuttled plans for biomass, in the process saving $100 million of the estimated $250 million retrofit project. But by converting a 1950s-era coal-fired plant into a natural gas plant, the university is shrinking its environmental footprint considerably – which promises to help clean up the air and, perhaps more importantly for Madison manufacturers, help keep the regulatory wolf away from the door for some time to come.

“Dane County has always been right on the edge of becoming a non-attainment area from the EPA, and if we ever crossed that threshold, it would be a real burden for economic development in that all other new sources and even some existing sources would have to meet more stringent air emission standards than we would without being a non-attainment area,” said Alan Fish, the outgoing associate vice chancellor for facilities at UW-Madison. “So the combination of MG&E decommissioning the Blount Street coal plant and Charter Street being decommissioned as a coal plant really will take a big step backward in the amount of particulates as well as other air emissions, like heavy metals and sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. So all of those major health precursors will get a significant reduction from the change to natural gas.”

With the importance to Madison residents and the Madison business community of projects like the Charter Street power plant renovation abundantly clear, it no doubt will interest them to know that the project is proceeding on a smooth, straight road.

Two massive gas boilers are currently being installed at the site, and the university will begin test firing those in January. Two more will be installed later in 2012, and should be fully functional by 2013. The coal boilers will be used as a backup for part of this winter, but the plant plans to wean itself completely off coal by late winter – at which point it should be nothing but clear skies ahead.

A massive undertaking

Construction work on the Charter Street plant is being done by The Boldt Co., a Fox Valley company that also has a presence in Madison. According to Jeff Niesen, vice president of Boldt’s Madison office, work on the project has gone smoothly thus far.

“It’s a very complex project, and there is some rather intricate phasing required in order to continue producing the steam and the chilled water to heat and cool the campus,” said Niesen.

Another challenge involved getting the 120-ton natural gas boilers to the worksite. Indeed, if you were traversing Madison-area roads in the early-morning hours of July 14, you may have encountered a sight like none other you’ve ever seen. Clearly, delivering a 120-ton payload is a little more complicated than sending a Christmas gift UPS, and in addition to working out the logistics, the company had to reassure local communities that the delivery would not wreak havoc on the roads.

“This [delivery] came through Middleton and through Madison, and those communities don’t see those kinds of movements but every few years, and they get concerned about whether we’re going to cause damage to their streets and roads and so forth,” said Niesen. “And we went through a lot of hoops to make sure we had engineering studies on any structures we were going to cross. … The fact of the matter is that this trailer that brought these boilers in from Nebraska had over 200 wheels on the ground, and it spread the load out over just a tremendous area, and it really isn’t providing any more pressure on any individual tire than a local concrete delivery truck would.”

Another challenge, said Niesen, has been accommodating students and other residents who live near the construction site or must pass by it on a daily basis. The company built an overhead protection structure to shield pedestrians and bikers from equipment and materials that needed to be moved from the company’s staging area to the project area. It also had to take into account that the plant is located on a campus that has, at times anyway, been known for its rowdiness.

“Yes, we put up some pretty robust fences around the site,” said Niesen. “We had alarm systems on some of the crazy football weekends, we put 24-hour security people onsite to keep an eye on things. None of it, I don’t think, has been malicious. It’s just to me, kids being kids, and you’ve got to protect them from the sort of mischief that kids will want to get into.”

Of course, complex challenges are nothing new to Boldt. The company grew up alongside the Fox Valley’s paper mills, and contributed its expertise to that industry – though with growth in the paper industry slowing in the Midwest, the company has largely moved on to other projects.

“Pulp and paper companies typically had big boilers and heating plants and steam plants to run their papermaking operations, so the transition was relatively easy for us,” said Niesen.

Now, the company looks forward to doing more work in the energy sector – and doing its part to help clean up the air and keep local economies viable. “We’re excited about the opportunities in this segment,” said Niesen. “We’re excited about doing our part in any of these projects that help clean up the environment, whether it be a conversion like this or some sort of wind farm or some dam turbine rebuild or something like that. Those are all opportunities to help our environment and get away from some of these more pollution-creating sorts of power-generating facilities.”

Easier on the eyes

When it’s completed, not only will the new Charter Street power plant be a more hospitable neighbor from an environmental standpoint, it will also be a much more valuable asset to the university.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, we’re going to get included in the scope of this work a new water treatment system, new cooling tower, digital controls which will enable us to manage this plant much more precisely minute by minute rather than hour by hour or even day by day,” said Fish. “So it becomes a much more finely tuned instrument for delivering both steam and chilled water to the campus. So it’s an upgrade more than just environmentally. It gives us a much more reliable plant and a much more efficiently operated plant, and that’s going to drive our staff into the 21st century era.”

And while power plants are not known for their architectural appeal, according to Fish, the retrofitted Charter Street plant will be a welcome addition to the Madison landscape.

“I think the other issue is the aesthetic of this plant is going to be an improvement,” said Fish. “If you went by the Charter Street plant before this started, you’d see a fairly old building, chain-link fences, barbed wire, and a pretty declining infrastructure. Now, not only will the equipment inside be state of the art, but the exterior of the building will fit into the campus much better than we’ve had before, and you’ll actually be able to see the inner workings because we put windows right on the ground floor where people can go by and see what’s in there, and see the operation of this plant at the same time.”

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