27. November, 2004 - Steam Plant, snow

When I woke up this morning, there was snow on the grass. That’s a first for the season. I may decide to go out for a walk with the camera later on in the day, but I guess we’ll see.

paved paradise?
paved paradise?

That out of the way, it’s time for more pictures from last Tuesday. First is the sign that mars what used to be a somewhat wild triangle of land between the Stone Arch Apartments and the U of MN Steam Plant. It’s been an abused piece of land over the years, but now it’s been turned into a parking lot for the apartments. Of course the developer promised that they would have plenty of parking in the garage under the apartments, so I don’t see why they should need any extra parking. Unless of course they lied, but that would never happen, right? My take is that the parking lot is probably better than the townhouses they originally wanted to build there, but I’d prefer to see no development at all on the river side of Main St. SE. Then again, there are a lot of things I’d prefer that aren’t going to happen.

U of MN Steam Plant
U of MN Steam Plant

Next up is the University of Minnesota’s Southeast Steam Plant (also known as the Twin City Rapid Transit Company Steam Power Plant). It’s been under renovation, and is also looking to change the permit they have so they can burn alternative fuels, so a number of neighborhood sorts got a tour of the building.

It’s a historic building, having first gone up in 1903, as a backup power sourt for the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (it became the main power source in 1905). It was owned by NSP between 1953, when the streetcars were torn out, and 1976, when it was transferred to the University. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places ten years ago in 1994.

U of MN Steam Plant
U of MN Steam Plant

Our tour was supposed to begin at 3:30, but we started a bit late, and many people had questions, so we didn’t get outside until the sun was just about setting. It gave the building a nice warm glow that wasn’t completely wrecked by the auto-white-balance feature of my camera that I couldn’t figure out how to turn off. No pictures were allowed inside, for security reasons, but I did get a chance to take a couple pictures of it from right next to the river as the sun was setting, and I think they turned out okay. Before the tour, I heard from a couple of the people there that my previous picture of the building was being used either as a screen-saver or background on their computers, which is kinda cool. These pictures were taken from right in front of that tree down on the left end of that earlier picture.

It was an interesting tour. We got to see most of the inside of the plant, including the three new boilers, the backup, and the backup to the backup. The newest boiler is a seven story monster CFB boiler that’s so efficient that they don’t actually run it full-time. It produces too much steam to use in times of less than peak demand, so they end up running the somewhat older boilers instead. The other cool thing about the new boiler is that it’s suspended from above. When they fire it up, it actually grows about a foot in height, and that expansion is a lot easier to handle when the boiler is hanging.

The plant’s main purpose is to generate steam to heat the University (both east and west banks), Fairview University Medical Center, the State Board of Health, and the Cedar Riverside People’s Center. The plant can produce up to 15 megawatts of electricity too, but that’s done with the same steam that’s sent out to the world, so the generating capacity is limited by how much steam can be used to heat buildings. When we were there, it was making about 5 MW of electricity, and using half of that for running the plant. Apparently pumping a MW or two into the grid is a fairly typical average.

The recent renovation was a $120M project. That seems like a lot, but my impression after the tour is that it was money well-spent, especially since it includes the new boiler which can burn darned near anything you throw at it, plus restored the exterior, which was in pretty rough shape.

The plant burns about three train cars of coal per day in winter, and has two coal bunkers. The one right next to the plant can hold about twenty-five cars worth of coal, and the main one by the old main plant can hold more. Since coal is sold in 110-car loads, the plant partners with Xcel when buying coal, and typically gets a quarter-load at a time. They also burn natural gas and wood.

The Guthrie & Gold Medal Flour
The Guthrie & Gold Medal Flour

As I mentioned earlier, they’re looking to get a new permit to allow them to burn more biomass. The permit application listed a big laundry-list of different possible types of biomass, including turkey manure, which got the neighborhood a little excited. According to the guys running the plant, they don’t actually want to burn manure, but wanted as flexible of a list as possible, since their current goal is to burn oat hulls from General Mills (there’s a lot of oat hulls left after making Cheerios), but in the time it’s taken them to get approval, other folks have stepped up, and the price for the oat hulls has risen dramatically. They want to be able to switch to new fuels more quickly, and I think that’s a reasonable request, as long as they strike manure from their list.

After finishing the tour, and on my way out, I took one last picture of the Guthrie construction with the Gold Medal Flour sign blinking nearby. It’s a view you don’t often get, and my only regret is that I hadn’t brought my mini-tripod so I could have been steadier on the ¼ second exposure. I guess I did pretty well for hand-held, and I got the composition I was after.

Copyright 2009, Dave Polaschek. Last updated on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 13:57:53.