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Power Hungry
To keep up the search for veritas, Yale needs a lot of lux.

Click here for a tour of the the Central Power Plant.

It takes all kinds of energy to make Yale go. One indispensable source is the Central Power Plant, an 89-year-old building at Tower Parkway and Ashmun Street. This neo-Gothic half-church, half-warehouse contains the three jet engines that generate steam and chilled water to heat and cool the central campus. (The Sterling Power Plant does the same duty for the medical campus.) For the moment, the engines are relatively quiescent, running at about half of their maximum load. Because Yale struck a deal with United Illuminating by which the utility is supplying power at lower cost than the university can make it, the engines are working just hard enough to handle the heating and cooling. In 2007, when the deal ends, the three turbine “power islands” will again work to their full capacity as the Central Power Plant resumes generating electricity.

The Central Power Plant is a shadowy six-story warren worthy of a film noir.

As David Ottenstein’s photographs suggest, the plant is a shadowy six-story warren worthy of a film noir. It is stuffed from basement to roof with a thicket of color-coded pipes—red for steam, blue for chilled water, beige for steam condensate water, and so on. Along with the power islands, the plant houses three additional diesel generators to meet surges in power demand, a package boiler to boost steam, five turbine-driven chillers for air conditioning, and an operations room where computers keep the whole works under continuous surveillance. All that energy and steam cogeneration produces the noise of a 737 at takeoff and ambient temperatures that can top 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yale’s enormous energy needs make it a mighty consumer of hydrocarbons, and, as a result, a major producer of greenhouse gases: some 260,000 metric tons last year, according to a study by the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. That exhaust—for a campus of 20,000 people—is just slightly less than that of the entire Central African Republic (population 2.8 million). Last October, Yale president Rick Levin promised that the university would reduce its greenhouse-gas output to 10 percent below its 1990 level. Meeting the commitment will take some technological and accounting magic. Yale must cut its emissions by about 55 percent from current levels—even as the campus grows.

While Yale has committed itself to reducing its emissions, it is simultaneously planning to expand the plant, which is now barely able to meet peak campus demand. Complaints about air-conditioning brownouts have rained down on the plant in recent summers, and plant manager Tom Starr says he anticipates the situation getting worse. Meeting the demand for heat and electricity while cutting back emissions will require installation of alternative energy sources (and perhaps providing subsidies for wind and solar power to “offset” Yale’s own emissions). As a first step, one boiler is being converted to burn low-emission biodiesel fuel from soybean oil. And while nobody has proposed adding a wind turbine farm to the athletic fields—not yet, anyway—“there are,” says Starr, “some really out-of-the-box ideas being discussed.” the end


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