Cold weather tenting for the Atkinson Heat and Power Plant
retrofit project at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
The plant is being overhauled at a cost of $245 million.
Photo courtesy: Stanley Consultants.
in the Dark
How UAF is Building What May Be
the Last New U.S. Coal Plant
BY JOHN SOLAN, P.E., MIKE RUCKHAUS, P. E., AND CHILKOOT WARD, P.E.
On a quiet Friday at 5 p.m. in December, 1998, the outdoor thermometer at the University of Alaska
Fairbanks showed minus 20 degrees
Fahrenheit. Inside the UAF Atkinson
power plant, an aging tube in the Unit
1 power stoker burst under 625 pounds
per square inch of pressure, filling the
facility with steam.
Steam condensation tripped off the
plant uninterruptable power supply,
which in turn shut off power to the
control system, shutting down the
plant and pitching the entire cam-
pus into darkness. Frigid air began
attacking the buildings and dorms that
were heated by the steam system from
the Atkinson combined heat and pow-
er plant. Meanwhile, computer net-
works and communications systems at
the sister campuses in Juneau and An-
chorage failed due to their reliance on
facilities and equipment located on the
If the plant staff didn’t move quickly enough, untold millions of dollars’
worth of damages would occur, from
frozen plumbing and HVAC systems to
the water treatment plant to damaged
research equipment and lose priceless
in-progress research specimens and
The top priority was to dry out the
campus switchgear and restore the
power supply to the campus. Once the
switchgear was functional, the staff
restarted the three undamaged boilers. Working through the night, they
restored light and heat to the campus
in 12 hours. They would repair the ruptured tube and restart the remaining
boiler later that week.
Thankfully, no one was hurt in the
Dec. 11, 1998 incident. Although a
crisis was averted, the event served as
notice to UAF that its two end-of-life
boilers, installed in 1964, were a catastrophe away from significant damage to the university’s infrastructure.
A CAMPAIGN BEGINS
UAF is a university looking to the
future. Founded in 1917, the university
has 10,000 students and 2,000 faculty and staff at the Fairbanks campus,
which includes 3. 4 million square feet
of academic, research, administrative
and housing space. Research funding,
which grew from $56 million in 1997
to $108 million in 2010, was one of the
key drivers in its expansion.
UAF needs energy generation to
grow. A $108 million life sciences
teaching and research building, a $5.3
million arctic health greenhouse, $4.7
million energy technology facility and
a $110 million engineering building
have been built or are in the construction stage. In addition, partly because
it has its own source of heat and power,
UAF is considered a place of sanctuary
for the surrounding community in case
of emergency, including floods and
earthquakes, therefore a reliable source
of energy was important.
UAF was witnessing campus growth