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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Power to the People
by Stephanie Sides

"Photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of eight buildings and parking structures produce one megawatt of power annually."


UCSD Solar Trees

Solar Power Partners

Envision Solar

Borrego Solar

Student Sustainability Video 

Photograph by Alan Decker

Imagine your circulation system writ large, with blood vessels, color-coded red and blue as in medical textbooks, but big enough to walk through. This enlarged heart nearly touches a 33-foot ceiling and pumps loudly enough for you to need industrial-strength ear­plugs. Substitute energy for oxygen, and you have the plant that powers the entire UC San Diego campus.

Famous as “Building A,” the campus’ first building on campus, the University’s 30-megawatt power plant provides heating and cooling as well as 80 percent of the  electricity. Most of the remaining 20 percent is imported from San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE). Historically, the cam­pus obtained all its energy from SDGE.  But in 1996, the State of California deregulated the utility system, and the University realized it could generate its own power. Thus, the plant was born.

The facility includes a massive underground tunnel system that houses and provides maintenance access to miles of pipelines serving up hot and cold water across campus. And the tunnels are physically so impressive that photos are discouraged for fear of encouraging student exploration.

This plant uses co-generation, which refers to the simultaneous production of steam and electricity in a single thermodynamic process. Compressed natural gas is combined with air to produce
a continuous, manageable explosion (combustion) that turns the shafts of two turbines (comparable to 747 airplane engines). These then spin their respective generators to create electricity and steam. Some of the steam powers other turbines that, in turn, power large refrigerant machines that chill water to cool the campus.  Massive heat exchangers then convert the rest of the steam to hot water to heat the campus and provide critical laboratory services.

The process is highly efficient. Natural gas is more efficient than fossil fuel and the University’s system uses 75 percent of the energy it generates. In contrast, a fossil fuel plant providing power to the grid is 30-40 percent efficient, not including the additional loss of 7-10 percent it incurs by transporting the energy over the grid. Furthermore, John Dilliott, energy/utilities manager for the campus, says that the co-gen plant has saved the atmosphere more than 60,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year since 2001 when it was installed. And campus-generated energy costs about four cents less per kilowatt hour than imported energy, producing an annual savings of $8M.

Although the combustion of natural gas creates oxides of nitrogen that contri­bute to smog, these oxides are scrubbed by state-of-the-art catalytic converters producing emissions so low (.59 parts per million) they can hardly be measured.

The plant’s central monitoring system tracks both electrical flow throughout campus and the amount of electricity each building uses. A complementary system, also controlled at the plant, monitors the internal environment of each building, down to room level. It controls temperature, whether the thermostat setting should be changed, whether the room is set as “occupied” (needing to be warmer) or not, etc.
With all the energy generated on campus, inevitably there’s going to be some waste. Near the exit to the co-gen facility are what appear to be “rain machines.” They reflect the final rejection of the cumulative heat generated on campus; this heat is absorbed by cold water circulating through the buildings, then returned to the plant where it is transferred to refrigerant, then to water in the cooling tower, producing the rain. “Our system is like the body sweating after a workout,” says Dilliott.

Solar Trees

As the campus looks more and more to renewable sources of energy, it has started to add solar to the mix. It has an agreement with Solar Power Partners (SPP), which in 2008 oversaw installation of photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of eight buildings and parking structures, capable of producing one megawatt of power annually. In 2009, SPP will install additional panels to bring the total to 1.2 megawatts of solar energy on campus.

The most interesting solar installations—Solar Trees™ built into Solar Groves™—are installed on the Gilman and Hopkins parking structures. Accord­ing to Dave Weil, director of sustainable operations infrastructure at UC San Diego, “The trees provide solar energy plus shade for cars. Some say they even improve the aesthetics of the structures.”

The trees were designed and manufactured by Envision Solar and Borrego Solar was a prime contractor for the solar project. “That the design, engineering, and installation were all done by local companies is testament to the campus’ commitment to a sustainable society,” says Logan Boutilier, Marshall ’06, a regional energy manager for Borrego. “UC San Diego has set a high bar for other UC campuses.”

This arrangement with SPP enabled the University to avoid the huge cost of construction—a projected $9 million—against the backdrop of an ever-shrinking UC budget. And it positions the University as a guaranteed market for the resulting energy at a rate of somewhat less than 14 cents per kilowatt hour that increases gradually (though at a slower rate than the projected grid power rate) over the 20-year contract. SPP in turn benefits from a 30 percent tax credit on the construction cost.

A win-win situation for both.

Stephanie Sides is a freelance writer specializing in topics related to sustainability, climate change, and renewable energy.

UC San Diego, a Good-Power Neighbor

UC San Diego’s ability to generate power provided dramatic assistance to the community during the southern California wildfires of October 2007. When parts of the SDGE grid were threatened by fire, SDGE asked the campus, as its third largest energy user, to minimize its draw so other members of the grid wouldn’t be shut
out altogether. It was about 11:30 on Monday morning, October 22, and the campus complied. Not two hours later, SDGE did lose some power sources, which caused it to request outside sources of energy to fill its grid. Once again the campus complied, ramping up its co-gen facility and sending 3-4 megawatts of energy onto the grid. This was possible because John Dilliott and his energy team were able to cut back on-site energy usage while generating sufficient power to export energy.

Stephanie Sides is a freelance writer specializing in topics related to sustainability, climate change, and renewable energy.

"The co-gen plant has saved the atmosphere more than 60,000 metric tons of CO2 - Equivalent per year since 2001."