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New system aims to decrease UT's carbon footprint

News Editor

Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 15:09

N_Michael Green.jpg

Danielle Gamble / IC

Michael Green, director of energy management, explains how the University Computer Center will remain cool because of the new cogeneration system. Excess heat from the system will be funneled into heating the Student Recreation Center’s swimming pools. Green said this system is the first of its kind in the country.

A new, eco-conscious technology at the University Computer Center is under construction and set to be finished this semester. 

This new system, known as cogeneration, will be used to simultaneously power the Computer Center and heat the pools in the Student Recreation Center said Director of Energy Management Michael Green.

“Cogeneration means that you put one fuel in and you get two products out of it,” Green said. “This takes natural gas in and one of the things that comes out is electricity, and the electricity powers the computer center.”

Created by Capstone Turbine Corporation, this turbine, which burns natural gas or diesel, functions like a jet engine, except this doesn’t fly planes — it powers a building. 

“We fire the gas, ait spins the turbine, the turbine spins then it spins the motor,” Green said. “In a coal fire plant, they use coal to make steam to spin the turbine — here, we’re using natural gas.”

Green said while there has been a similar Capstone system at the Center for Visual Arts in downtown Toledo since 2006, the old structure does not have the same capabilities as the new system. 

“The downside of co-gen is that if you can’t use the waste heat all the time, you can’t run it all the time,” Green said. “We have a couple of them to reduce our costs down there, but we can only run them for about six months of the year.”

Green said this new system will not only run continuously, but will also protect the university’s computer network, which is supported by the Computer Center, from going off-line during a city power failure.  

“If you wanted to back up two spots for critical power on campus, you’re going to want the hospital and the computer center,” Green said. “If University Hall loses power, yes, the president’s going to be without air conditioning and we’ll temporarily figure out how to get him over to Driscoll or one of the other buildings. But if you lose the computer center, you lose the whole place — you might as well shut down.”

Green said the Computer Center currently has partial back up power, but this new system will offer a completely self-sustaining and fully backed up energy source.

“So in this case, we’re going to put gas into these gas turbines and then the exhaust that comes out of the gas turbines comes over here to the absorber and the absorber has two heat exchangers on it,” he said.

Green said the heat produced by the turbine works with liquid in the system to create condensation, which in turn works as a coolant for the large network of computers at the Computer Center.

“Basically it’s a brine solution,” Green said. “It works at a different temperature and pressure so that at the higher heat it can produce chilled water that can absorb heat out of the building.”

Green said the cogeneration plant should be running this winter after some construction that will connect the cogeneration plant to the Student Recreation Center. He said the construction involving the steam and chilled water plants on campus are expanded will involve blocked traffic on the southeast corner of campus.

Green said the project was funded partly by the university utilities and partly through a third-frontier grant.

While a similar model of this system is being used in Syracuse, N.Y., the portable model at UT is the first of its kind in the nation.

“If someone wants to order a cogeneration plant for their computer center, you just tell how many kilowatt hours we need, how much cooling you need, how much heating you need and so on,” Green said. “Then they fill a shipping container with everything you need, ship it to you, drop it on a concrete pad and plug it in.”

Green said once UT’s new system gets “a few bugs worked out,” it could be the first step toward mainstreaming cogeneration systems. 

“If this one works as well as everyone thinks it will, they’re going to start selling these things and they’re going to be running trucks out of Northwest Ohio,” he said.

Green said while going green is good for the environment, a smaller carbon footprint means a more balanced budget. 

 “We’re trying to hold our maintenance costs flat while the campus is expanding,” Green said. “That’s really tough to do, but that’s one of the ways we’re doing it.”

He said after the current equipment is replaced by the new cogeneration set-up, the old heating and cooling system from the Computer Center will be recycled at another location on campus.

Green said while it’s important to invest in big projects, students can take small steps now to reduce their impact on the environment.  

“Let’s say you turn your air conditioning in your car on in the morning and leave it on all day just so you can come back and have it nice and cool for you,” Green said. “How long can you sustain that? If all the students and all the thousands of people at our school and our community just turned off their AC, think of how much we could save.” 

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