Project background

powerplant furnaceIntroduction

As it approaches five decades of service, the Atkinson Heat and Power Plant provides electricity, heating and cooling for about 3 million square feet of academic, research, office and housing space at the UAF campus in Fairbanks. Our programs serve thousands throughout Alaska, and our 17,000 alumni live and work in communities throughout the state. Our heat and power plant is the foundation of UAF's statewide research, teaching and service missions.

Combined heat and power is key

University leaders made a wise decision when they built our heat and power plant. The cogeneration approach was and still is the most efficient way to use fuel, because the combustion process creates two products: heat and electricity. We get the most energy we can from the fuel we burn.

Aging infrastructure

Despite excellent maintenance, the plant is nearing the end of its useful life. The main boilers at the plant were installed in 1964, and both maintenance costs and the risk of catastrophic failure are increasing. With that looming, we studied a wide variety of options and spoke with professionals in the energy and environmental communities. Our best solution was a major plant upgrade, including replacement of our main coal boilers. This project is the cornerstone of a strong and diverse energy portfolio for the next 50 years.

UAF at risk

The Fairbanks campus is home to billions of dollars in state infrastructure. It all rests on the foundation of an aging heat and power plant. Since a catastrophic failure of the plant would be financially devastating to the university and the state, a decision was made by the university and the state to invest in a robust heat and power facility that will provide a reliable foundation for education and research well into the future.

Financial risk

The construction of the new Combined Heat and Power Plant will avoid the potential costs of a failure of the existing facility. If the existing boilers were to fail, UAF would be forced to switch to oil-fired heat and electricity, increasing annual fuel costs from approximately $9.8 million per year to in excess of $33 million per year. That would swiftly exhaust both the UAF and UA reserves and necessitate additional state funding.

Infrastructure risk

If the existing plant were to fail during the winter, there is danger of freeze-up and significant damage to nearly every facility on the Fairbanks campus. Purchasing electricity from GVEA does not provide heat to rapidly cooling buildings. The grid cannot provide enough power to heat campus with electricity, and even if it could, it would be cost-prohibitive. If the campus were to freeze, it could cost up hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the damage.

Programs at risk

Without this major upgrade to the plant, the educational, service, research and workforce development opportunities that support the state's economic health would be at risk. A plant failure would affect enrollment and research funding for years to come.

Fuel costs if the main boilers fail

fuel cost graph

UAF energy solution

After extensive study, a major upgrade, including new main boilers, made the most sense, in terms of long-term operating costs and viability and reduced pollution. Embarking on this project now is the fiscally responsible decision. Our aging boilers would have needed millions of dollars in repairs in their coming years, and even those would not guarantee reliable operation.

Flexible solid fuel

The anchors to our energy solution are two circulating fluidized bed boilers, which will burn coal and up to 15 percent biomass to generate up to 17 megawatts of power and enough steam to heat the campus. The CFB is an efficient and flexible technology and can burn almost any solid fuel.

Diversified energy portfolio

In addition to the upgrade and new boilers, we will retain our two existing backup diesel and gas boilers and continue with campus energy conservation measures and exploration of renewable options. This plan will allow the university to meet its energy needs for the next 50 years and nearly eliminate the need to purchase higher-cost electricity from Golden Valley Electric Association.

Project funding

The total project cost for the upgraded plant is $245 million. The funding was supplied from several sources as indicated below:

Alaska Capital Appropriation/Reappropriation $74.5 M
Alaska Municipal Bond Bank $87.5 M
FY15 and FY16 Operating $13.0 M
UAF Revenue Bond $70.0 M
TOTAL $245.0 M

The benefits

In addition to creating the foundation for a secure, diversified energy portfolio that will serve the university for years to come, this project is good for the state and the environment.

Environmental benefits

The new, more efficient boilers will result in a marked decrease in regulated emissions, including an enormous drop in particulates. This is good news for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which has been designated a nonattainment area by the EPA. The upgraded heat and power plant will emit 65 percent fewer particulates and still generate the same amount of heat and power as the existing Atkinson plant.

Benefits to Alaska

The project will create a significant increase in construction jobs and economic activity in Alaska from 2015-2018. In addition, UAF has historically served as a shelter for Alaskans during disasters. The upgraded plant will heat and power campus independent of the larger electrical grid, which will allow campus to continue to serve that public safety role in the Interior.

Reducing regulated emissions

emissions graph

Learn more; act now

Resources and links


The Atkinson Heat and Power Plant was built five decades ago. Its main boilers were built in 1962 and came online in 1964. The plant has two auxiliary boilers, one that burns oil and one that burns both oil and gas. The plant supplies electricity, heating and cooling to more than 3 million square feet of UAF facilities. The cogeneration approach was, and still is, the most efficient way to use fuel because the combustion process creates two products: heat and electricity. Despite excellent maintenance, the main boilers are nearing the end of their useful life.

Combined heat and power is an efficient and clean approach to generating electric power and heat from a single fuel source. Instead of purchasing electricity from the distribution grid and burning fuel in an on-site furnace or boiler to produce heat, an industrial or commercial facility can use combined heat and power to provide both products as part of one combustion process. At the UAF plant, fuel is burned to create steam, which both heats and cools campus and spins turbines to create electricity.

Yes. There are more than 500 schools, colleges and universities with combined heat and power plants, including Auburn University, Colorado State University, Iowa State University and Northern Arizona. They use a variety of fuels, including biomass, coal, natural gas, oil, waste and wood.

The main boilers are at the end of their useful life, and the risk of catastrophic failure is ever-present: The network of pipes that run inside our aging boilers has failed at single points before. In the 1990s, a section of the continually thinning pipe wall finally gave way, filling the plant with steam and nearly freezing campus. The plant, in its current form, represents an enormous financial and capital risk to the university and the state. A catastrophic failure could mean up to $1 billion in damage to university assets and pose a safety risk to students, staff and faculty.

We plan to replace our main boilers, which use 1890s stoker technology, with a circulating fluidized bed boiler, or CFB. This technology can burn multiple types of solid fuel that which is mixed with limestone. Large amounts of air flow through the boiler, and the fuel burns while moving fluidly in midair. This technology is more efficient -- it uses less fuel to create the same amount of heat and power -- and has lower emissions than the current plant.

Yes. We have been looking for the best option for many years. Most recently, we analyzed the feasibility of more than a dozen options, including solar, wind, purchased hydroelectric power, small nuclear plants and a variety of new, untested technologies like gasifiers and internal combustion engines. In the end, the CFB was the best fit for our available fuel and our heat and power needs.

We plan to retrofit our second oil boiler to burn gas and keep both boilers as backup.

The solution is not as simple as tapping into the local electrical grid, because the campus would still be without heat. We could fire up our two backup diesel boilers, but the increased cost of fuel would swiftly decimate the university's budget.

We did examine both the operating and fuel costs of a gas option. It costs less to build a gas plant; however, gas is a more expensive fuel than coal. All our models are just that -- models -- because there is currently not a reliable source of gas. Using today's prices, our fuel costs with the new boiler would be about $5.3 million each year. Fuel costs at current gas prices would be about $20 million a year. Until a low-cost, reliable supply of gas becomes a reality in Fairbanks, a gas option is not viable.

The new boiler is just one part of a diversified energy portfolio at UAF. In addition to the solid fuel boiler -- which will burn coal and about 15 percent biomass -- we are planning to purchase wind or other renewable power when it's available, and are already investing in small, on-campus solar projects.

Conservation has long been a part of our energy management strategy at UAF. We use waste heat in our air-exchange systems and use energy-efficient bulbs in our lights. Our design standards exceed industry standards for energy efficiency, and we are in the process of converting chilling systems in West Ridge buildings to make the best use of our district cooling system. Most recently, we launched an energy-efficiency audit and upgrade program that is expected to save about $500,000 per year.