A plan to install three new engines in the T.B. Simon Power Plant would breathe new life into the decades-old facility and aid in Michigan State’s efforts to reduce its own carbon emissions.
The T.B. Simon Power Plant, the central supplier of power to MSU since 1965, took steps to cut down its greenhouse gas emissions through a university-wide Energy Transition Plan established in 2009. The plant currently provides steam heating and cooling to buildings such as residence halls and academic classrooms.
Coal burning phased out in 2016
Two products — power and heat in the form of steam — are distributed across campus via a 20-mile pipe and tunnel network.
“The steam is used across campus for building heating, building cooling and processing in various places,” Sherri Jett, director of utilities for Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, or IPF, said.
MSU is a microgrid — a localized energy grid that can disconnect and operate independently from traditional electric grids. This means it produces its own energy and the majority of MSU’s energy comes from the microgrid.
Six generating units are part of the power plant. All of them originally relied on burning coal to produce energy.
But the T.B. Simon Power Plant swapped out coal for natural gas in 2016 in accordance with standards outlined in the Energy Transition Plan.
“This used to be a 100 percent coal plant,” IPF Communications Manager Fred Woodhams said. “It is now natural gas, which is more efficient (and) does reduce the CO2 (and) the greenhouse gas emissions.”
That switch resulted in a reduction of about 410 million pounds of carbon dioxide output per year in the past decade, IPF reported. That’s equivalent to planting 500,000 trees per year.
MSU has reduced its output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent since instituting the Energy Transition Plan. But replacing coal with natural gas isn’t the only update to the power plant.
Development of the RICE project
MSU’s demand for electrical power has steadily increased, while the demand for steam power hasn’t nearly as much, according to IPF. To remedy this, a project to install three reciprocating internal combustion engines — dubbed the RICE project — would separate the two processes to further reduce emissions and conserve energy.
“The RICE project will have more ability to use that energy more efficiently,” Woodhams said. “It kind of separates out the steam generation and the electrical generation and that’s just a more efficient system, so MSU will be more sustainable going forward.”
The new engines would work together with existing boilers to ensure efficiency.
“The thing with the RICE engine … is how you can kind of turn it off and on,” Woodhams said. “With the boilers, you can’t just really flip a switch and turn them off. That’s just not how they work.”
The older boilers take hours to power down and cool off, Woodhams said. That spells trouble for power plant operations, especially when workers try to bring them back online.
“When we take one of the older boilers offline, often things break and then we have to make repairs to get them back online,” Jett said.
The RICE project would allow IPF to repair the plant’s aging infrastructure with updated equipment, ensuring a smoother transition to renewable energy in the future.
Two of these engines running would fulfill normal campus power demands. All three engines running simultaneously could sustain campus in emergency situations, such as ones caused by severe weather.
If carried past the developmental stage, the RICE project is projected to decrease emissions from the T.B. Simon Power Plant by about 100 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, according to IPF.
Effect on another renewable energy project
The RICE project could even assist another renewable energy project at MSU — the carport solar arrays completed in 2017, advancing the university’s Energy Transition Plan. RICE would allow for another 20 megawatts of solar arrays, tripling MSU’s renewable sources, Jett said. The updated plant could assist solar production even in cloudy weather.
“Since then, the parking solar panels — they’ve been operating for about a year now, a little over a year, so that meant a change as well,” Jett said. “We’re looking forward to be able to increase in renewable power generation capability here on campus and these RICE engines will help us get there.”
Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:59 p.m. Feb. 24 to reflect a change by IPF to the number of RICE engines being installed. Three engines will be installed instead of four, according to their updated plan.