Good news on ORNL’s second-chance Steam Plant

2015-P05677-001An elevated view of the Boiler Operating Area at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s revised Steam Plant. In photo below right is the exterior of the Steam Plant on the lab’s Central Campus. (ORNL photos/Jason Richards)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s new steam plant may turn out to be a winner after all.2015-P05673-001

The Department of Energy’s manager at ORNL said a new high-efficiency system — which burns natural gas or fuel oil, if needed — has been installed ahead of schedule, and so far the results have been impressive. It will replace a wood-chip boiler, which was touted as an easy-on-the-environment alternative but turned out to be a flop and had to be shut down in late 2013.

A temporary boiler was put in place to provide steam for plant operations until the new system came online last month in the same facility on ORNL’s central campus.

“What we’re seeing through performance testing and shakedown over the past month looks attractive,” said Johnny Moore, the federal site manager at the Oak Ridge lab. “The initial data tells us that we’re getting even better efficiency than we thought.”

In fact, Moore said, the new system could turn out to be a better value than the projected results of the one that failed. But he emphasized the preliminary nature of the data and said it’s too early to declare the makeover a success.

The temporary unit has been used again in recent days while some added tweaks are made to the new system and the steam plant’s flooring.

Moore praised Johnson Controls — the contractor responsible for the steam plant and other energy-conservation projects at ORNL — for following through on its commitments.

In 2007, Johnson Controls signed a $90 million Energy Savings Performance Contract with the Department of Energy. As part of that deal, the company financed, installed and managed a number of “sustainability” projects at ORNL, and DOE committed to paying fees to the company based on cost savings.

The biomass steam plant, which burned wood chips as fuel, was shut down a couple of years ago after system checks revealed that walls were thinning in some of the key vessels and transfer lines associated with the hot gases. The deterioration occurred after barely a year and a half of operation and reportedly posed safety concerns, forcing the shift to a new system.

DOE said Johnson Controls provided a temporary boiler while the new approach was developed, and the company did not receive any performance-based payments for that project for about two years. The contractor did, however, get about $5.5 million from DOE to help offset some of the unexpected costs. The company also continued to collect revenues for other energy-saving projects at the lab.

Johnson Controls did not respond to a request for comment.

Moore said DOE formally accepted the new system, with some conditions, on Sept. 11. The energy savings contract is expected to run through 2032, he said.

The replacement boiler is primarily fueled by natural gas. It’s designed to produce 60,000 pounds of steam per hour and — according to the DOE official — has shown it’s capable of more than that during early tests at full throttle. The new system incorporates a heat exchanger and other components from the short-lived biomass steam plant, and it’s housed in the same facility on the lab’s central campus.

Moore said he expects the redone plant to meet the lab’s steam needs for decades to come and save taxpayers money. ORNL uses steam for a number of purposes, most notably heat during the winter months but also to drive research components and to use as a cleaning agent.

Besides the boiler that’s being supplied as part of the DOE’s energy-savings contract, UT-Battelle — the contractor that manages the lab — has purchased two other boilers of the same size and design. They will replace two old and oversized units at the site and make it easier to meet the lab’s overall steam needs, regardless of the season, without unnecessary production costs.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.