UAB gains some steam

By on February 19, 2013

Water, chemicals and energy were cheap when Alabama Power Company constructed its Powell Avenue steam plant more than 60 years ago. So, the capture of hot condensate left over from the steam generated by the coal-fire plant and return of it to the boiler for re-use likely wasn’t a consideration at the drawing table.

UAB utilizes and recycles the use of steam, such as for heating in buildings. UAB News

UAB utilizes and recycles the use of steam, such as for heating in buildings. UAB News

“It probably didn’t make the economic sense to do condensate recovery back then,” says Jim James, assistant vice president for Planning, Design & Construction. “It was cheaper to throw away the watered chemicals and thermal energy. But time has a way of changing things — both in terms of the way you think, and the economic aspect.”

That’s why when UAB’s District System Steam Project begins full operations this month, a condensate return system will be in place. And it will far surpass the energy efficiency of the old Powell Avenue steam plant, the closure of which Alabama Power announced five years ago. That move necessitated the construction of the $72 million UAB steam system, which was approved by The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees in June 2010.

The new steam-generation plant, which is natural gas-powered, is located at the corner of Sixth Avenue South and 13th Street, across from Bartow Arena.

Many UAB buildings use steam for heating, sterilization and humidification, but the decision to build an on-campus steam plant certainly didn’t happen on a whim. UAB commissioned several studies on what it should do to replace the Powell Avenue plant. In the end, says James, there were more than 30 different options. Among those available were installing individual boilers in each of the affected buildings, constructing five or six miniature steam plants in strategic locations on campus, and/or converting some of the buildings to hot water instead.

James says those evaluating how to go forward even discussed cogeneration, which is when a heat engine or power station is used simultaneously to generate both electricity and useful heat (think of making your own electricity cheaper than you could buy it). None of those were the most cost-effective — or most practical — choice.

“We spent two years analyzing options and ways to proceed,” James says. “At the end of the day, constructing our own steam plant was the best way to do it for many reasons.”

UAB News

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