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New UMaine Energy Center Being Built to Replace 117-Year-Old Steam Plant

Wed November 08, 2023 - Northeast Edition
The Maine Campus

The University of Maine's Central Steam Plant at the Orono campus is an essential component that allows the university to function.

As part of the school's long-term Carbon Commitment goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040, and to ensure the continued reliability of a critical piece of infrastructure, a new addition to UMaine's steam plant is set to be both a new and upgraded facility, according to the school's student newspaper.

The Maine Campus, published since 1875, reported Nov. 6 that the university put out a request for proposals in 2016 to find a solution for its energy needs, and in February 2018, the right to negotiate was awarded to Honeywell International.

Honeywell did not initially win the bid and was the runner-up behind New York-based ConEdison, the New York-based energy firm. But ConEdison withdrew its bid after media reports alleged improprieties between the utility and some UMaine officials.

The university maintains that ConEdison withdrew based on conditions outside of its control. For its part, ConEdison said it would have been unable to provide a firm pricing offer by the UMaine deadline, noted the Maine Campus news site.

Regardless, the project has changed immensely since it was first awarded to Honeywell.

Initially, it was a combined heating and power plant near UMaine's East Substation, and a four-megawatt solar array also was planned.

The effort, as currently proposed, consists of an addition to the existing steam plant facility and an upgrade to the UMaine campus electrical distribution system. Michael Swartz, the university's campus energy and utility manager, described this as a fundamentally different project.

The addition to the steam plant, officially known as the UMaine Energy Center (UMEC), can more accurately be described as a replacement for the current plant, which has been in continuous operation since 1906.

"UMaine's energy history is a true testament to our Mainer ethos of keeping things up and running well beyond their expected design life," said Dan Dixon, the university's sustainability director.

Once UMEC becomes operational, most of the old steam plant will be mothballed, Maine Campus noted.

New Plant Will Be Ready for Future Technologies

An integral feature of UMEC is that it would run entirely on renewable energy sources and have fuel flexibility, allowing it to respond to fluctuating energy markets. The built-in fuel flexibility will enable the plant to take advantage of future developments in renewable fuel technologies.

UMEC also is being designed as an educational tool and has features such as color-coded equipment. Currently, the design includes a classroom with a glass wall where students can see the boiler room operating floor. Glass is slated to be used heavily in the current design, allowing the plant's interior to be seen from the outside. Its control room also would be viewable through interior glass walls.

According to Dixon, the project's schematic design phase is winding its way toward being 50 percent completed, and a project update will be made to the University of Maine System (UMS) Board of Trustees in January. The board also must approve the completed design of the steam plant's replacement before construction can begin.

Ken Doiron, a utilities infrastructure planner/project manager, told Maine Campus that the UMEC facility's final design will likely be put before the Board of Trustees for construction approval in the spring of 2025.

Dixon estimates that UMEC could be complete sometime in 2027 or 2028 but warned that the timeline depends on several factors, including the trustees' approval.

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