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History & Transformation of Power Management

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Stanford University’s expansive educational, recreational, and residential facilities provide a space for success for over 30,000 people every day. 

Since the school was founded in 1891, utility management for the majority of campus buildings has been overseen by skilled teams of university staff. Now known as the Sustainability, Utilities & Infrastructure (SUI) department, this group supports the university’s academic mission by ensuring that energy, heating, and cooling demands are always met while embracing Stanford’s core value of sustaining life on Earth. 


The First Power Plant

Prior to the establishment of a large area power grid, most electricity was generated in small plants near its point of use. When construction began on the Stanford campus in the late 1880s, a power plant for lighting and mechanical power was one of the first buildings constructed. The original building, which now houses the Stanford Archaeology Center, contained a coal-fired boiler and direct current (DC) generator.


Extensive Earthquake Damage

On April 18, 1906, an 8.3 earthquake struck Northern California, devastating the city of San Francisco and causing extensive damages to Stanford’s campus. Sophomore Junius Hanna and university employee Otto Gerdes tragically died during the event. Many more may have lost their lives had it not been for the bravery and quick thinking of Gerdes, who ensured that no fires broke out on campus by turning off the electricity and steam in the Power House. In the weeks following the earthquake, a team of San Francisco architects and civil engineers assessed campus buildings at the request of University President David Starr Jordan. They found that the Power House was in need of several repairs, including reconstruction of the west wall, the addition of wall plates to anchor the building, and the improvement of joints in the roof trusses. 


New Power House

In March 1908, a commission of Stanford engineers raised the question of renovating the Power House, which had been slated for use as an engineering laboratory after earthquake-related reconstruction drove the relocation of some academic programs. The Board of Trustees voted to completely rebuild the Power House, and the project was completed by October 1908 at a final cost of $13,480. The renovated Power House continued to serve the campus until it was replaced by a boiler house located on Galvez Street (now the site of the Arrillaga Alumni Center) in 1913. By this time, the campus was being served by power from the developing utility grid.


Oil Burning to Gas

Work began in 1930 to convert the steam plant from oil-burning to gas for financial savings. Another benefit of the transition was that gas significantly reduced dirt and sootiness as compared to oil, and offered a hotter fire. Oil continued to be stored on campus in case of emergency.


New Boiler House

A new boiler house was built in 1948 by G.E. Rahm Company of San Francisco. This project was part of a greater renovation of the energy system. The installation of new boiler equipment in Stanford’s main steam plant was viewed as a critical step towards modernizing the university’s steam production and distribution system. As part of the project, the plant’s smokestack was removed in 1949.


Chilled Water Plant

Stanford's chilled water plant was constructed in 1972 and underwent several major renovations, the most recent of which took place in 2006. The plant had a total capacity of 11,600 cooling tons and consisted of four electrical centrifugal chillers, three steam absorption chillers, and a steam turbine-driven centrifugal chiller. The steam-powered chillers captured the excess steam generated by the cogeneration plant during the summer, when campus steam loads are low and electrical rates are high. The electric chillers provide off-peak and winter capacity when there is not enough steam to operate the steam powered chillers.


Commissioning of Cogen Plant

The cogeneration plant was commissioned in 1987 and was owned and operated by Cardinal Cogen, a subsidiary of General Electric. The plant was a combined-cycle power plant consisting of a natural gas powered turbine, a waste heat recovery steam generator, and a steam-powered turbine. Stanford used about 60% of the electrical power (the balance was sold to PG&E) and 80% of the low-grade waste heat generated by the plant. The high efficiency of Cardinal Cogen saved Stanford over $1 million each year. Cardinal Cogen supplied the campus with energy, hot water, and heating through the spring of 2015.


Ice Plant

Stanford's ice plant was constructed in 1999 to provide additional summer cooling capacity without having to operate electric chillers during periods of high electrical rates. The ice plant produced 20,000 tons of cooling using its five electric rotary screw chillers and ice storage coils. Except under extreme cooling load conditions, the ice plant chillers operated only at night when electrical rates are low, “building” ice in the tank. The ice was “burned” the following day when electrical rates were high in lieu of operating electrical chillers. The ice plant was in operation until spring 2015. 


Board of Trustees Approves Concept of SESI

In December 2011, Stanford’s Board of Trustees approved the plan for a new energy system known as the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) project. SESI was designed in an effort to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption while meeting energy demands. The Board recognized SESI as a vital step towards the university’s climate action plan, which includes the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.


SESI’s Central Energy Facility Comes Online

The Central Energy Facility (CEF), featuring grid-sourced electricity and an electric heat recovery system, went into operation in April 2015. The CEF transformed the campus energy supply from a fossil-fuel based heat and power plant to a renewable electricity-based energy system.