How One Campus Complex Powers the Entire Forty Acres

When asked what keeps him up at night, Juan Ontiveros, associate vice president for utilities, energy, and facilities management at UT, gives a surprising answer: a mouse. Specifically, a transgenic mouse—a pink, hairless, genetically modified creature used by researchers on campus at the Animal Resource Center. He oversees the Carl J. Eckhardt Combined Heating and Power Complex, which provides 100 percent of the electricity, heating, and cooling to UT’s main campus. If a power outage were to occur and even one of the hundreds of mice were to die, thousands of dollars and countless hours of research would be lost instantly.

Now, with the new addition of the Dell Seton Medical Center in 2017, the stakes are even higher. “I used to say all I have is animals, but now I have a hospital,” Ontiveros says. “Now it’s human life.”

Thankfully, Ontiveros can rest easy, because power outages don’t occur often at UT. The university electric system has had 99.998 percent reliability for the last 40 years, largely due to the fact that its power is 100 percent self-produced as a microgrid, meaning it has the ability to be autonomous and disconnect from the main city grid, or “island.” All of the electricity UT uses is made on-campus, but the power is still continuously connected with Austin Energy under a standby 25-megawatt contract as backup. When necessary, UT can cut off ties to the city if Austin has an outage to preserve its own electricity flow, but that’s a rarity—the last time was in 2015.

This makes UT’s plant stand out, which it has been doing since it began in 1929. Today, the system boasts big titles: the largest microgrid in the U.S. and the most efficient university utility in the country. Ontiveros says the plant holds these superlatives internationally as well.

“It’s such a Texan thing, but as far as we can tell, it’s all true,” says Michael Webber, BS, BA ’95, Life Member, a mechanical engineering professor and deputy director of the UT Energy Institute.

Located in the heart of campus at the corner of San Jacinto Boulevard and 24th Street, the complex is hard to miss. Walk by and you’ll see the second tallest tower on campus—the 212-foot-tall brick smokestack from the original construction. You’ll also hear the five huge water chilling stations producing what sounds like UT’s own Niagara Falls. Inside, turbines spin to produce near-deafening noise and a fair amount of external heat, making it a wonder how the workers endure. But the employees’ dedication pays off. Each year, the plant receives prestigious awards that applaud the system’s sustainability, its efficiency, and its innovative construction and design. In 2014, UT became the first campus to be Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal (PEER) certified, which recognized its sustainable electricity system design.

Here’s how it works: The plant uses purchased natural gas (around $17 million’s worth each year) to create its utilities. It begins by powering one of two jet-engine turbines to produce the electricity that travels throughout campus to more than 160 buildings. Steam yielded from this process helps run steam turbines, and leftover exhaust steam is piped through 9 miles of underground tunnels to heat buildings and water. As for the cooling, the system has five chilling stations that create cold water to pipe through and cool down buildings. The system also recaptures water byproduct and reuses it, creating a cycle where Ontiveros says he “takes the waste and puts it back to work.”

UT has been doing all this since the 1930s, continuously improving the process and keeping up with an ever-expanding Forty Acres by finding new ways to be more efficient, cost-effective, and eco-friendly. Recently, more and more universities have taken a cue from UT and have started to develop their own campus microgrids in an effort to “control their own destiny,” as Webber says. With an increase in severe weather, such as hurricanes, the ability of campuses to stay online is crucial, especially to protect research. Ontiveros says there are about 100 universities that have some sort of power generation for their campus, but UT stands out as the only one to produce 100 percent of its energy needs.

“We get visitors from all over the world that come here to see how we do things, because we’ve become the best at it,” he says. “Everybody wants to copy us, and we don’t mind. We consider it part of our responsibility to share what we’ve learned because it benefits the world.”

The UT system isn’t a perfect model of a green-energy future, though. It’s run entirely on natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but still produces, on average, 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Webber recognizes that for those who are serious about eliminating carbon emissions, the system is not a sufficient solution. “But if you’re really serious about efficiency, and performance, and cost, and carbon,” he says, “then natural gas starts to look pretty good.”

Ontiveros is serious about the latter, always considering what’s best for the university, its students, and his staff. He’s been with Utilities and Energy Management for 20 years and is working to continue the legacy of the complex’s namesake, Carl J. Eckhardt, BS ’25, MS ’30, a mechanical engineering professor who spent 40 years in various roles managing the plant and growing it into the successful operation it continues to be today. Had UT never constructed the power plant, Ontiveros estimates the cost to buy power from the city today would add about $25 million each year to operating costs, which, in a time of heavy cuts to state funding, would likely mean tuition increases. So Ontiveros keeps doing his job, finding ways to keep UT’s energy and utilities running at its best efficiency, reliability, and cost.

“Anybody can do this anywhere,” Ontiveros says. “The tools that we use are off-the-shelf tools. It’s about applying them right in the right place.”

Photographs by Sarah Frankie Linder.


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