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SUNY Potsdam opens natural gas power plant


POTSDAM — SUNY Potsdam’s newly opened $8 million heat and power plant can produce enough electricity to almost entirely meet the college’s needs while cutting down on carbon emissions.

The facility opened Monday, after nearly nine years in the works.

SUNY Potsdam received state funding for the plant in 2005. Construction was largely completed in 2011, but it took longer than expected to prepare the plant to connect to National Grid’s system.

College, state and SUNY officials met at the plant Monday to celebrate its opening.

“This is a fitting milestone for the day before Earth Day,” said interim college President Dennis C. Hefner, who said the plant will cut the college’s carbon footprint by up to one-third.

The two large generators will use natural gas to generate enough power to meet almost all of the campus’s needs. When the college is particularly busy, the generators can provide about 70 percent of the needed electricity, and on slower days they will be able to handle the entire load.

The generators will not always be running. Electricity prices change by the hour, and the college will be monitoring each day’s prices to see whether using the gas necessary to run the engines would be cost-efficient, or whether it should buy the power from the grid as normal.

“They will run quite a bit in the summertime and quite a bit in the wintertime,” said campus energy manager Thomas L. Smith, who monitors the prices and makes the call about when to switch on the plant.

Even when the plant isn’t running, its existence allows the college to reclassify itself as an energy producer rather than a commercial customer, saving $5,000 a month in National Grid fees.

“If this thing never runs, we’re saving $60,000 a year,” said James T. “Tony” DiTullio, college assistant vice president of facilities and planning.

As it is, the generators are expected to provide total savings of $200,000 or more each year.

When the generators are running, they produce massive amounts of heat. This will be redirected into large water-filled cylinders to produce steam, which can be used to heat the campus in the winter. The steam also can be cooled to provide air-conditioning in the summer.

“It’s like a double win,” Mr. DiTullio said.

SUNY Potsdam is working with Clarkson University on the possibility of creating an emergency microgrid, which would connect several local power stations to important buildings such as Canton-Potsdam Hospital and Potsdam High School via underground wires in case of a major emergency. This idea is still in the early planning stages.

“This would be the biggest part of the microgrid,” Mr. Hefner said of the new plant.

The system includes the equipment necessary to add a third generator if the college decides it is necessary.

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