Full steam ahead … almost
UND signs predevelopment agreement for potential new steam plant in different location
When Mark Johnson began his career with UND Facilities as a locksmith back in 1985, he didn’t pay much attention to the sky-high smokestack to the south side of campus.
“I knew the steam plant was over there – I saw the smoke coming out of it, but that’s all I knew about it, just like most people on campus,” Johnson recalled. “When was the last time you said, let’s go to the steam plant and walk through it?” he added with a grin.
Thirty-three years later, a new strategy for steam is one of his top priorities.
As UND Facilities’ director of operations & maintenance, Johnson is one of the decision makers behind a recently signed predevelopment agreement with project lead Johnson Controls, which will set in motion potential plans to replace the more-than-a-century-old power center.
Johnson said his steam plant team has had to be resourceful in keeping up with mounting repairs to a system containing boilers that are, in some cases, more than 50 years old.
“They’ve been able to scrounge and borrow,” he said. “Long before the days of eBay they were able to somehow network with other institutions, and if they ever heard that there was an older boiler similar to theirs going out of service, they could scavenge the parts.
“It’s a relief to be seriously looking at a viable solution,” he added.
First big step
The predevelopment phase of planning for a new steam plant will allow UND to begin assembling professional partnerships and services related to design and engineering, so that Facilities can gather solid renderings, data and numbers to embed in a final development agreement.
Mike Pieper, associate vice president for facilities, hopes they can wrap up predevelopment by the end of summer, so that he can present their vision to the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) for approval and begin a development plan for bidding, construction and occupancy.
Since UND didn’t request state appropriation dollars for the project, it will not need legislative approval.
“Each biennium, we get to make three requests. We may only get one request, but we can make three,” Pieper explained. “If we take the steam plant off the list, things like Merrifield Hall updates, a STEM building, and improvements to other existing buildings can be on that list.”
UND will instead support the $75 million project ($50 million for the plant itself and $25 million for mechanical infrastructure in existing buildings) through a public-private partnership – in this case, a long-term capital lease agreement.
Pieper made it clear that the steam plant’s UND customers and external customers (including Altru Health, the School for the Blind, Grand Forks Public Schools and Greek housing), will not see a steep rise in billing. It will be business as usual throughout the transition.
“The project will be paid for within the existing steam rate,” he said. “That was a parameter that we put in place. We don’t want to have to increase the steam rate in order for this to work.”
A proposal in the UND Master Plan would place a new steam plant on the south side of the current Facilities building, pulling it away from the landscape of the main quad and allowing a more attractive student environment. In its new position, people would only see the top of a shorter, smaller exhaust stack.
If all goes as expected, plant construction could be completed by late fall or early winter of 2019. The old steam plant would then be shut down in the summer of 2020.
Coinciding with the construction of a plant would be an examination of how the entire system can be made more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Facilities will look at energy-conserving improvements in HVAC, plumbing and electrical at the campus building levels.
“We can build a new plant with all new boilers and take care of all the deferred maintenance of the steam plant. But if you don’t have good efficiencies, you’ll probably be producing more steam,” Johnson said. “In other words, why have six boilers when you can get by with five boilers?”
“This is an exciting venture for so many reasons,” said UND President Mark Kennedy. “We are advancing the University’s environmental stewardship, we’re enhancing the beauty of our main quad, and we don’t have to ask the state for $75 million to make it happen.”
Once the work of the plant and UND buildings is done, campus planners will turn their attention to some final improvements, including possible corrections to Campus Road to make it more intuitive, as well as additional parking at the site of the old plant.
But, Pieper says, that’s down the line. First thing’s first – and this predevelopment plan is that first thing.
“It’s a great feeling. Now we know we have a defined timeline,” Pieper said. “We’re confident about the work that’s been done, we’re confident about the conversations we’ve had with the SBHE, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback in terms of finding an alternative route.”
For the locksmith who worked his way to the management table, where the idea of a steam plant was more than smoke billowing in the background, a running joke may become reality.
“A few years ago, somebody asked me when I was going to retire, and I said I can’t retire until we get a new steam plant,” Johnson chuckled, “I really didn’t think I would even see that yet in my career, because we’ve talked about it for 20 years.
“I’m just really glad that it’s, hopefully, going to happen before I do retire. I can feel like at least that portion of the University is now positioned for the next 30-40 years.”