UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Powering the future

World-renowned Johnson Controls and UND celebrate public-private partnership for new steam plant

Representatives from UND and Johnson Controls, Inc., along with Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown and State Sen. Ray Holmberg, throw the ceremonial dirt on a new steam plant project that will replace the century-old plant now located in the heart of campus. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.
Representatives from UND and Johnson Controls International, along with Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown and State Sen. Ray Holmberg, throw the ceremonial dirt on a new steam plant project that will replace the century-old plant now located in the heart of campus. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

While it was only a dozen shovel-loads of dirt, Tuesday’s gathering behind UND Facilities marked a momentous occasion.

In a public-private partnership, UND and Johnson Controls (JCI) broke ground on the successor to the century-old campus steam plant. It’s a 40-year agreement between the University and Johnson Controls, with the global, multi-industry giant designing, building, operating and maintaining the new facility.

It’s also the continuation of a legacy between the two institutions. In 1910, the company installed the first 57 radiators on campus. UND President Mark Kennedy says that soon after, the first parts of the steam plant were built where it now stands on the main quad.

“That’s over a century,” Kennedy remarked, once the gathering moved from the Facilities lot to the Gorecki Alumni Center to celebrate. “Johnson Controls and UND are here a century later, and I’m confident that we’ll be here a century from now.”

Charles McGinnis
Charles McGinnis (far right), Vice President of Johnson Controls’ Performance Infrastructure sector, introduces speakers after the steam plant ground breaking at a reception at the Gorecki Alumni Center. Left to right: Mark Kennedy, Mike Brown and Ray Holmberg. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Transcending project

The project is a $90 million undertaking which not only creates a new, gas-powered steam plant, but addresses millions of dollars in deferred maintenance in 40 campus buildings. UND’s current plant brings power to Altru Health, the State School for the Blind and Lake Agassiz Elementary School in addition to the main campus.

To achieve the multi-faceted goal, JCI brought over 20 local and regional entities together as partners including AEI Affiliated Engineers, AE2S, JLG Architects, Odney Public Affairs, Obermiller Nelson Engineering, Bruning Law and PCL Construction.

The fact it’s happening is a marvel to grounds-minders both past and present. Larry Zitzow, who retired two years ago as director of facilities management, is glad to see a situation come about that provides UND the ability to make crucial adjustments.

“I fought for forty years, and we could never get the money to do it,” Zitzow said about improvements to HVAC and lighting in campus buildings included in the plan. “Now, all that goes away and you start almost brand new. All I can say is wow.”

UND's current century-old coal-fired power plant will be torn down and replaced by a new natural-gas powered steam plant on near other UND utlities structures on southwestern corner of campus. UND archival photo.
UND’s current century-old coal-fired power plant will be torn down and replaced by a new natural gas-powered steam plant near other UND utilities structures on the southwestern corner of campus. UND archival photo.

Building an updated central utility plant powered exclusively by natural gas, rather than mostly coal and backup gas in the current plant, provides some impressive environmental impact statistics. Pair that with efficiencies via improved building-to-building infrastructure – the savings are staggering.

“The project is an awesome use of appropriated funds,” said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. “The public-private partnership is being funded through dollars that UND would already be spending on the current plant. Because of that, the project will not require any additional appropriations.”

Kennedy also highlighted the fact it touches every aspect of campus. The old plant coming down will open up a central area of campus, working toward the master plan of beautification. The efficiencies put UND on a path of being a greener institution.

Annually, the new steam plant and surrounding improvements will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40,000 metric tons of CO2 – equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 74 square miles of forest.

“It will be like taking 8,600 cars off the road,” Kennedy added. “This is going to have a huge impact elevating the beauty and functionality of campus that will hopefully attract evermore students to UND.”

Ray Holmberg
North Dakota State Sen. Ray Holmberg. R-Grand Forks, said the UND plan to build a new power plant and replace its aging existing one, by creating a private-public partnership, is a good use of taxpayer dollars.  Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

New era

The transition of efficiencies is similar to what LeRoy Sondrol experienced back in his time with the University. He led Facilities before Zitzow, overseeing the transition from manual to automated systems controls both in the steam plant and campus buildings. It was a new era, and he sees another beginning with the full switch to natural gas-fueled steam power.

“Gas is the way of the future,” he told UND Today. “In some ways the steam plant was landlocked. As a coal plant, we were dependent on rail delivery for coal.”

In recent years, coal has been delivered by the truck-load due to rail capacity. Though Ray Tozer, a former steam plant employee, remembers unloading rail cars before a facility was built specifically for that purpose.

“When I started [in the 1970s], we unloaded coal out of train cars in the elements,” Tozer said. “We requested an unloading facility, but it was denied by the legislature. We wanted to enlighten President Clifford and give him a tour.”

Tozer and the plant crew showed the former UND president their process, navigating the rail yard on pallets to avoid wading through the muck. It was a particularly brutal experience that day, and Tozer said it wasn’t long until alumni funding brought the steam plant a proper station for processing coal shipments.

LeRoy Sondrol and Larry Zitzow
Two former UND facilities directors, LeRoy Sondrol and Larry Zitzow, both of whom knew well the challenges associated with UND’s old coal-fired power plant, give the new natural-gas powered version a thumbs up. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Earned applause

Zitzow knows the “horror stories” all too well, including going out with jackhammers in 30-below weather to get coal out of rail cars.

Mike Pieper
Mike Pieper

There’s also the persistent battle of keeping 50-60 year-old boilers running. They have parts that manufacturers can’t replicate, meaning pieces needed to be custom-forged or altered to work with the steam plant’s systems.

The resourcefulness of UND’s plant operators earned a round of applause at Tuesday’s ceremony.

“They stayed with it, worked with it, they never gave up,” Zitzow said of employees both past and present. “The equipment would break and they’d do anything possible to keep everything going. It’s phenomenal what they had to do.”

Current Facilities VP Mike Pieper says one of the first issues he faced on the job was coming up with a solution for the steam plant. He’s proud of the fact UND’s partnership with JCI immediately brought in local partners for a project that impacts the entire community.

“It’s exciting to see that time and effort of planning come to a conclusion,” he said. “We have steel ordered, boilers ordered. The team’s getting together, having regular meetings and waiting for the spring thaw.”

The new central utility plant is expected to be completed by spring of 2020.