Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital water tower with old power plant in the background

The central power plant was first constructed in 1924 as a coal-fired plant to serve the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. In the mid 1930s, service from the power plant was extended to Western's East Campus to provide steam for Spindler Hall, Oakland Recital Hall and Walwood Hall. Prior to this time, steam for East Campus was provided through a small power plant operated by Western at what was known as the Upholstery Shop located on Oakland Drive directly across from the Seelye Center and which is still in use today.

Steam from the plant was later extended to West Campus with the construction of the Burnham and Draper Halls in 1950. With the explosive growth of West Campus in the '50s and '60s, a new south addition to the plant was constructed to house a 125,000 pounds per hour coal fired boiler in 1956. This was followed by construction of another coal-fired boiler in 1965 with the same power capacity. The total steam capacity of the plant peaked out at this time at 480,000 pounds per hour with a firm capacity (largest unit off line) of 355,000 pounds per hour. The historic peak steam demand for the plant reached 300,000 pounds per hour in the early 1970s before the first energy crisis.

One of the great energy stories of Western is how through their aggressive energy management program, steam trap monitoring, building envelope and system upgrades—despite have added nearly two million square feet of new building space since this time—the peak steam demand (currently 195,000 pounds per hour) is now a third less than it was at its peak! This has saved the University millions of dollars in costs for larger boiler equipment had our steam requirements expanded along with our campus size.

The power plant was exclusively a coal burning facility during this time, with over 50,000 tons of coal brought in annually on rail cars, unloaded and stored on site in what used to be the coal pile area on the south side of the plant. In 1991, environmental requirements forced the conversion to natural gas on the small boilers and partial capacity on large boilers 5 and 6. This side wall gas burner can still be seen on boiler 6, the one remaining boiler in operation (emergency back up only) from the days of Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital plant operation. Coal burning was totally discontinued in 1999.

A new era — The Robert M. Beam Power Plant at Western Michigan University

With the growth of Western and the decline of the hospital, 95 percent of the output of the plant went to Western from a plant that was not being adequately funded or maintained. In November 1994, responsibility and operation of this aging coal-fired facility officially transferred to Western Michigan University under the stewardship of then-Vice President of Business and Finance Robert M. Beam. The plant was later named in 2007 in his honor for his visionary leadership and determination to see it evolve into one of the most efficient, best operated and environmentally compliant power plants in the state. Beginning with major upgrades in 1994 and continuing to today, follow are some of the many accomplishments under the leadership of Robert M. Beam then and present leadership today:

$21 million, as well as much time and energy, was invested to make the plant safe, reliable and efficient. Some of these changes include:

  • New 13.8 kilovolt switchgear with vacuum breakers were installed that could be remotely operated for added safety.
  • A hot lime water treatment system with full 100 percent makeup capacity should condensate return be lost from campus.
  • Two new full-sized deaerator tanks.
  • One 900 kilowatt backpressure steam turbine for added overall plant efficiency and one 800 kilowatt natural gas fired engine generator for black start and peak shaving operation.
  • Aeroderivative engines designed by Rolls Royce Energy systems, with whom Western recently entered into a new 10 year contract.
  • In 2001, the power plant was reorganized and staff reduced by 40 percent through retirement and attrition. The plant's new training program ensured that the plant did not miss a beat, saving the University hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Since shutting down coal burning in 1999, WMU is now a gas burning plant with annual emissions of less than one ton of sulfur dioxide, four tons of particulate and 50 tons of nitrous oxides. For comparison, burning coal typically generated annual emissions of 700 tons of sulfur dioxide, 300 tons of particulate and 300 tons of nitrous oxides.