One Billion Kilowatt Hours

Taken from: Facilities Connection Winter 2014

Power plant crew.

It took over 16 years to get to this point, but Halloween was special this past year, not for tricks, but for a “treat.” At about nine o’clock on Halloween, it was estimated that the Robert M. Beam Power Plant generated its one-billionth kilowatt hour since Western Michigan University took over ownership and operation of the power plant from its former owners, the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, in 1994.

At the time the power plant transferred to Western, it was a 100 percent coal-fired facility with 40 to 50 year-old boilers that had become unreliable and environmentally non-compliant. The first order of business for Western was to restore safety, reliability, environmental compliance and efficiency. Western proceeded to invest over $20 million at the time to install all new electric switchgear, a new, safer (no acid or caustic) water treatment system with full makeup capability, an 800 kilowatt gas-fired engine generator for peak shaving and emergency black start capabilities, a 900 kilowatt steam turbine electric generator for efficiency and, most significantly, a co-generation system consisting of two new 5,000 kilowatt gas combustion turbines with heat recovery steam generators. These became the primary steam dispatch units to campus when they first came on line over 16 years ago in August 1997. It was basically at that point that Western became exclusively a natural gas-fired plant and compliant with all regulated emission requirements. The old coal-fired boilers that had powered the facility since the 1920s were shortly retired along with their environmental liabilities.

The total electrical output from operation of the two gas turbines beginning in August 1997 together with the smaller capacity engine generator and steam turbine that came on line a little over a year later in October 1998 finally reached this historic milestone of one billion kilowatt hours after over 16 years of operation. Put into perspective, this represents over 80 percent of the total overall electrical use of all the end users (Western and Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital) during this time frame. The operation of the gas turbines allowed the University to significantly reduce the amount of more expensively priced electricity it has to import from Consumers Energy, resulting in millions of dollars worth of savings.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, not only were these turbines used to generate electricity, they were also used to co-generate steam for heating and cooling the many buildings on campus. These particular gas turbines are literally “jet engines” that generate a lot of heat in the process of combustion to initially produce electricity. For example, the jet streams you see looking at up in the sky are the same hot exhaust gases condensing in the cold upper atmosphere. Here in the power plant, the 1,000 degree Fahrenheit exhaust gas from these turbines is captured and routed through a heat recovery steam generator (i.e., boiler) to essentially boil water and recover as much energy as possible contained in this hot exhaust gas. Each turbine has the capacity to generate 25,000 pounds per hour of “free” steam just from this hot exhaust gas. The term “free” steam is used to differentiate this steam as no additional fuel was used to generate it. To generate this same amount of steam through a conventional boiler would require some 30,000 cubic feet of natural gas per hour. To put this into further perspective, the overall steam production of the power plant over this 16-year period was approximately 11 billion pounds, 50 percent of which was comprised of this “free” steam. This resulted in further savings of millions of dollars not to mention the avoidance of burning and exhausting into the atmosphere an estimated additional five billion cubic feet of natural gas. This one aspect alone has become increasingly important with the escalating emphasis on our carbon footprint and in reducing our carbon emissions.