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Many have seen the Notre Dame power plant. But how does it actually work?

| Monday, October 7, 2019

Patrick Gerard: Most people have seen the Notre Dame power plant, but does anyone actually know how it works?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself wondering: “Does it run off plutonium? The screams of the damned? Are we about to have our own little nuclear holocaust?”

In a desperate search for knowledge, I found myself stumbling into the main office, begging for answers.

Turns out, the short answer is no. And although it may be disappointing that Notre Dame won’t be the future home of a hit HBO series, the power plant still has an interesting story to tell — a story Paul Kempf tells suspiciously well.

Paul Kempf: My name is Paul Kempf and I’m the assistant vice president of utilities and maintenance.

Gerard: Kempf has worked for the university for 30 years, and is a key leader in keeping Notre Dame running.

Kempf: I oversee basically two departments: one is the utilities department which runs the power plant; it’s responsible for the production and distribution of energy to all the campus buildings. And then the maintenance department, which is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all the facilities on campus.

Gerard: According to Kempf, the Notre Dame power plant has existed nearly as long as the university itself.

Kempf: In some form or fashion, the university has had a power plant since probably the late 1800s. It’s been located in different spots. At one point it was probably a small facility right behind the main building. That was probably until about 1900. If you’re familiar with where the St. Liam’s health center is, that was a plant site that lasted from about 1900 to 1930. In 1931, they built a portion of the existing plant as you see it today. And it’s stayed on this site for the last almost eighty years and expanded in almost eight or nine different pieces as the campus grew to support a bigger energy footprint.

Gerard: And, as it turns out, the power plant is kind of a big deal, and really drives the University.

Kempf: We do a variety of things. So, the original plants were mainly for heating, right? Air conditioning didn’t exist in the 1800s, it probably didn’t come around until the late ’50s or early ’60s. But over time, in addition to steam for heat, we make chilled water in a plant for cooling most of campus. 

We produce energy as a byproduct of the overall … it’s called a cogeneration process. So, we provide about half of the electricity on campus, the other half we buy off the grid. We produce hot water that’s pumped around campus — centrally produced — for showers and things of that nature. So other than a little bit of gas, which is provided by an outside utility, which is used typically for maybe cooking in the dining halls, or laboratory uses in the science buildings, or purposes for providing steam for heat, we produce almost every sort of utility other than the communication ones.

Gerard: The Notre Dame power plant has begun transitioning towards more sustainable energy sources.

Kempf: It dates back to probably 2007, 2008, when the University — and actually our department in particular — started to take note of the movement for sustainability around the world. And, so, obviously a key part of that is energy; it’s probably one of the largest pieces when you think about sustainability — being recycling, water use and things like that.

We realized energy conservation was a big piece, which we’ve been an advocate of for a long time. But there was an opportunity to not only show the University a financial payback from conservation, but also a reduction in carbon emissions by not using as much energy. And as we’ve started that process and gotten funding, we’ve invested something like fifteen-million dollars over the last decade in conservation projects alone, and saved the University something like twenty-two-million dollars in that period of time, and those investments are still paying dividends and will for years to come.

We were asked what we would do in terms of long-range sustainability, so we did a long-range plan, so what would we look like? And initially the thought was we would probably start to move away from more carbon-intensive fuels like coal which had been the base fuel for this campus for a long time. We also used natural gas and we used fuel oil. Fuel oil really is about the same carbon output as coal, but natural gas is about half.

But in 2015, when Laudato Si came out, from Pope Francis, I would say in 2010 our plan was to de-emphasize coal, but keep coal as a sort of hedge against price-volatility or interruption in service. And where we had been 10% gas and 90% coal, we would shift that paradigm opposite that, and that’s actually where we’ve been running for the last few years.

But in 2015, [University President] Fr. John [Jenkins] asked us if there was a way that we could just stop burning coal altogether. And we knew, because of all the big construction on campus we were going to be adding things like gas turbines — which we are just finishing this year — and other projects. But we also looked into renewable and recoverable energy projects, and over the last three or four years that’s what we’ve been working on. In 2015, our goal was to get off coal by 2020 — five years. So, we’re well on the way, we’ll probably finish a little bit early on that process

Gerard: As it turns out, the Notre Dame power plant probably won’t be the source of Notre Dame’s transition into an apocalyptic hellscape. Rather, it acts as both a driving force behind Notre Dame and an expression of Notre Dame’s rich past and promising future.

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