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Microturbines, Solar to Help Lead U of I Toward Energy Independence

Projects at Iconic Steam Plant, IRIC to Decrease Costs, Reliance on Energy Sources

The University of Idaho is on the road to energy independence.

U of I’s renewable energy effort to eliminate its carbon footprint by 2030 includes two pilot projects:

The turbine project could save U of I an estimated $389,000 annually and is expected to be completed by fall 2021.

“The intent is to use backpressure turbines to reduce the excess steam pressure serving the campus heating system,” U of I Utilities Director Eugene Gussenhoven said. “Rather than using a pressure-reducing valve, we’ll harness that otherwise wasted thermal energy to generate electricity with backpressure turbines instead.”

A $250,000 biomass-to-energy grant from the USDA paid for the turbines, which will be installed on the south wall of the plant and will be seen from Sixth Avenue. U of I also received a $1.1 million grant from Avista Utilities for the $3 million project.

“This will provide about 13 percent of the campus electrical load,” Gussenhoven said. “With the energy savings, we should have the project paid off in four years. We could have gone to the taxpayers for a bond, but instead we are taking advantage of grant dollars and utility rebates that are already out there. We’re also not having to create a whole separate power-generation plant.”

The solar panel pilot project, which was crowdfunded by Give to Idaho, will be completed in late 2020 at the IRIC. An interactive touchscreen display with the project’s performance, carbon reductions and energy savings will be available to the general public in the building.

“The project will offset the building’s high-energy footprint,” Marc Compton, a mechanical systems engineer at U of I and the project manager, said. “Data on the performance will be available to faculty and students for any engineering or business classwork and research.

“Familiarity with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems will be a great resume builder for future grads as the technology is becoming more common worldwide.”

Power generated from the 393 solar panels is expected to offset an annual average of 25 percent of the building’s energy needs and up to nearly 100 percent on some summer days.

Scott Smith shows an energy distribution tunnel.
Scott Smith, central energy plant manager, crouches in a tunnel that distributes utilities to buildings on the University of Idaho campus in Moscow. The heat from an estimated seven miles of tunnels under sidewalks and roads helps melt snow.
To keep things as clean and green as possible, we need a holistic approach to renewable energy. Gene Gussenhoven, utilities director

“When future funding permits, we’d like to connect the solar array to the campus microgrid that’s being installed as part of the turbine project,” Compton said. “That will let the array supply power to critical loads during power outages.”

The panels could save U of I an estimated $11,267 in electrical costs per year.

“Typically these savings would increase each year as the amount the utility charges us for power increases,” Compton said. “The university would rely less on the utility market in the future.”

Gussenhoven said by engaging in a variety of local renewable energy sources, U of I leverages existing assets and reduces its dependence on broader national resources.

“To keep things as clean and green as possible, we need a holistic approach to renewable energy,” he said, adding that wind, geothermal, solar and biomass will all be critical for U of I’s future. “By operating on energy independence, U of I will reduce demand on second- and third-party energy sources, operate on a reduced carbon footprint and will likely be able to monetize the sale of energy from renewables over the long-term life of these renewable energy sources. In the short-term, U of I will save about $398,000 annually.”

The Future is Here

U of I plans to expand its local renewable energy sources and continue being a model for universities around the world.

Unique Centralized System

U of I uses a centralized district energy system that produces utilities such as steam, chilled water and compressed air for the heating and cooling needs of the campus. The 94-year-old plant distributes utilities to buildings through an estimated seven miles of tunnels under sidewalks and roads.

The heat from those distribution pipes in the tunnels in the central part of campus melts snow and ice, thereby decreasing U of I’s snow removal costs. Sidewalks with a tunnel underneath are marked by metal plates.

With a central location, energy is distributed at a lower cost than producing it in each building and the need for redundant, low-efficiency equipment that needs maintained in several buildings is eliminated.

The facility was built to burn coal, but as coal was phased out in favor of natural gas, the facility underwent changes. As part of U of I’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a partnership was formed in 1986 with the local wood products manufacturing industry to install a wood chip-fueled boiler at the plant.

The partnership was beneficial to both sides, Gussenhoven said. For the university, it provides a low-cost sustainable fuel source that reduces emissions compared to fossil fuels.

Multicolored pipes connect the steam plant to the rest of campus
The University of Idaho uses a centralized district energy system that produces utilities such as steam, chilled water and compressed air for the heating and cooling needs of the campus.

“Using wood chips, primarily cedar due to the low moisture content, saves us nearly three times the amount we’d spend on natural gas,” Gussenhoven said. “The nice thing about a product that turns to ash is that we can return that to our farmlands or forests as a nutrient.”

The collaboration also gives lumber mills a way to remove wood waste in an environmentally friendly manner, improving forest health and decreasing wildfire danger.

“Since the partnership involves a local resource, we’re supporting the local economy,” said Scott Smith, district plant manager. “The wood chip boiler has been a model for other universities around the world to follow for clean energy and savings.”

U of I’s Experimental Forest is among the lands benefitting from wood waste removal.

U of I is one of only a few universities in the Northwest that uses wood chips to produce energy, a method that has been praised by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality for reducing air pollution.

A hand holds wood chips, the fuel for the steam plant.
The University of Idaho uses wood chips, primarily cedar due to the low moisture content, to fuel a boiler at the steam plant. The wood chip boiler has been a model for other universities around the world to follow for clean energy and savings.

As a result of sustainable energy practices, U of I was ranked sixth in the nation among colleges and universities that reported to The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability and Tracking System in 2019.

The wood-fired boiler produces 90% of the steam required by the campus. Natural gas boilers produce the rest and serve as a backup.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s very green,” Gussenhoven said of wood chips. “If you burn coal or natural gas you have the problem of sulphur dioxides and nitrous oxides in the atmosphere. We don’t have that problem with wood-fired boilers.”

The biomass-to energy project was funded to University of Idaho by USDA/USFS under award 19-DG11010000-018. The total project funding is $375,000.00 of which 66.67% is the federal share.

U of I Alumni Play Key Role in Elevating Steam Plant’s Storied Past with New Technologies, Education

Marc Compton’s mechanical engineering research position caught steam his senior year at the University of Idaho and propelled him to a career path.

When Compton, a mechanical systems engineer at U of I, was a graduate student at the university from 2016 to 2018, he explored ways to improve energy efficiency of the 94-year-old steam plant on the Moscow campus.

His research, which found that three backpressure microturbines would reduce costs and dependency on public utilities, is an example of the hands-on learning opportunities the plant provides students in engineering, natural resources, art and architecture, business and sustainability courses.

“The steam plant was a great opportunity to see the inner working of the wood-fired boiler on campus, learn how a steam cycle works and how heating and cooling is sent to campus,” said Compton, who received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018.

“Since my education focused on district energy and sustainable energy, this is a great environment to put ideas and knowledge into practice,” he said. “It was a perfect opportunity to be involved with ways to bring energy savings to the university and a chance to give back to U of I.”

Compton is among a team of Vandal alumni who work at the steam plant.

Marc Compton, Scott Smith, Karrie May, Gene Gussenhoven and Ben Tucker.
The University of Idaho’s utilities and engineering team features deep Vandal backgrounds. From left are: Marc Compton, mechanical engineer; Scott Smith, central energy plant manager; Karrie May, steam plant supervisor; Gene Gussenhoven, utilities and engineering services director; and Ben Tucker, chilled water plant supervisor.

U of I Utilities Director Eugene Gussenhoven earned his bachelor’s degree in general studies from U of I in 1990.

His most memorable day was his also his first on Oct. 13, 2013, as wood pitch, soot and industrial grime permeated the air, sparking childhood memories.

“Odors saturated my senses, much like those I grew up with as a kid working in the family business Gussenhoven Plumbing and Heating,” he said.

Gussenhoven and District Plant Manager Scott Smith, who played basketball for the Vandals in the 1980s and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from U of I in 2016, both recall the university installing the biomass furnace and wood chip storage facility in 1986 along with the removal of the railroad tracks.  

“Prior to the wood-fired boiler, each morning students woke up to rail cars delivering coal,” Gussenhoven said. “The wood-fired boiler was state-of the-art in a changing world, seeking to improve the environment with future big ideas to generate electricity using a backpressure turbine.”

Karrie May, energy plant operations supervisor, began working at the plant as a part-time employee in 1998. She tested water and assisted with cleanup and maintenance while she was a full-time student. That experience fueled her interest in passing the education torch to students and co-workers at the plant.

Karrie May walks the steps inside the iconic steam plant.
Karrie May is the supervisor at the iconic steam plant with the exhaust stack at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Line Street.

“The most enjoyable part of my job is assisting with senior capstone projects and mentoring personnel,” said May, who earned her bachelor’s in animal science in 2012 and master’s in technology management in 2020. “Work study students are always enjoyable to meet and assign projects related to their degrees.”

May said the longtime collaboration with Nalco Water improved the plant’s water consumption.

“When I began working here, we were going through 22,000 gallons of water a day to operate the boilers, but we have reduced that to 1,500 gallons by capturing as much condensate water as possible,” she said. “This significantly reduced our impact on the shared aquifer of this community. It is exciting to see the development and improvement of the facility over time.”

Article by Brian Walker, University Communications and Marketing

Photos by Melissa Hartley, University Communications and Marketing

Video by Michael Boren, University Communications and Marketing

Published July 2020.


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 208-885-6291

Fax: 208-885-5841


Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts