In 1922, Western set a new standard for heating innovation when it fired up two small, coal-fed steam boilers that could keep the two buildings on campus comfortably warm.
A hundred years later, the university’s power plant is at the heart of new and planned industry-leading innovations to support Western’s shift towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050, while at the same time heating and cooling several dozen buildings on campus.
“This is a foundation for our low-carbon future,” said Heather Hyde, Western’s sustainability director. “We’re transforming the plant from a district heating system into a fifth-generation system that combines heating and cooling into one highly efficient loop, and also has flexibility to add in renewable energy sources.”
Today’s technology includes five boilers, each larger than a trailer home and each with a potential output 100 times the capacity of the original system. Add to that four chillers, three enormous air compressors, several kilometres of pipes and tubes, an ultra-efficient flue-gas recovery unit, and an inter-connected network that efficiently adjusts to always-fluctuating demand.
Western’s power plant, tucked into the core of campus, marks its centennial this year. Western operates one of the largest district heating/cooling plants in Ontario.
It supports Western’s student recreation centre at the south end and University Hospital campus of London Health Sciences Centre at its north end, and everything in between, simultaneously providing heat to the pools, cool air to the operating rooms, and warmth to the classrooms.
“There are a lot of hands working together, a lot of collaboration to make sure campus gets the temperatures it needs, whenever and wherever it’s required,” said Thomas Stein, manager of physical plant operations and leader of the 13 stationary engineers who keep the place running day and night.
The team also has an enviable safety record – almost unheard-of in an industrial setting – of almost two decades without time lost due to workplace injury.
When asked his line of work, Stein will sometimes joke, “I supervise people who boil water.” It’s easier than explaining the complexities of the job, or the reality that being successful at it means fewer people notice what they’re doing.
Natural gas boilers at the plant convert water into high-pressure steam that pipes heat to every building on campus, where steamfitters and the Western environmental system control group can adjust how heat is distributed through each facility. Another system captures flue gases, and redirects that energy to supplement the work of chillers that provide conditioned air to buildings and laboratories as needed.
Hyde said there’s a plan to install electric boilers – with more than half of electricity’s power generated by nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar – to boost efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint even further.
While most of the equipment in the plant has its own controls, redundancies and automation, each is also linked into a control room, with a vast array of screens where operators can measure and troubleshoot the performance of each system within the larger system.
Even their troubleshooting is low-key as they often get around campus on a fleet of toolbox-equipped bicycles whenever they need to tweak systems outside of the plant.
Vestiges of the old system remain, including dark, closed-access tunnels that carry steam pipes and chilled-water lines along with newer technology such as electrical cables and fibreoptics.
But those who designed the original power plant would have a tough time recognizing the facilities today, much less envisioning how an exponentially larger system could be both environmentally responsible and more efficient.
“The power plant is helping us march towards a carbon-neutral campus,” Hyde said. “It’s been critical to our success and, moving forward, it’s going to remain an important part of campus operations.”