BYU’s Central Heating Plant is a co-generation facility, both generating power and reusing waste heat in order to decrease environmental impact and increase efficiency on campus.
The plant runs solely on natural gas, a cleaner but more expensive alternative to the coal used previously.
Manager Dave Stringfellow said the power generated at the plant is not used for campus purposes, but rather sold to a power broker called Utah Municipal Power Agency. “They sell it to Provo, and Springville, and Spanish Fork and Salem I believe,” he said.
The decision to sell the power generated was a financial one, as the former heating plant at BYU, demolished in 2016, burned coal to heat the campus. Coal is a much cheaper, but dirtier fuel than natural gas, according to Stringfellow.
Stringfellow said when the old plant was replaced with the co-generation facility, operational costs rose, and thus the power generated is then sold to offset the cost of heating the campus during winter months.
According to the Physical Facilities website, the excess heat after the generation of power is then used to heat water within an underground closed-loop system that runs in 18 miles of pipes throughout campus. The water in this system is heated to 400°F and runs to nearly every building on campus, providing building heat in the winter and hot water year-round.
Eighteen full-time workers and a crew of about four trained students work to operate, maintain and monitor the complex co-generation system. The job requires specialized skills and training as the work is potentially dangerous if done incorrectly, but the heating system hasn’t failed yet, according to Paul Merrell, operator mechanic at the CHP.
“We’ve never had to shut down a building because they didn’t have heat or hot water,” Merrell said. “That’s a record to be proud of.”
Merrell said anonymous workers are good workers when it comes to providing hot water. “If they know who we are, we didn’t do our job well,” he said.
Plant Operations and Compliance Lead Jared Parrotti warned students to stay out of the campus tunnels where the pipes run.
“Just stay out of the tunnels. Trust me, you’ve nothing in there that’s fun, and things are really hot,” Parrotti said. “Our water is 400 degrees, that means our plumbing is about 400 degrees. It will burn you really easily.”