This 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, which Ontiveros describes as a pink, hairless, genetically-modified creature used by researchers on campus at the Animal Resource Center. Ontiveros 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 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 is what 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., the most efficient university utility in the U.S.—and 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, 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 with the prestigious awards received every year that applaud the system’s sustainability, praise its efficiency, or recognize its innovative construction and design. Some of its top honors include the Texas Environmental Excellence Award, the Pacesetter Plant Award, and 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 the system works: The plant uses purchased natural gas (around $17 million of it each year) to create all 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 nine 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 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, Ontiveros cites the ability of campuses to stay online as crucial, especially to protect research. Ontiveros says there’s 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.”

However, the UT system isn’t a perfect model of a green-energy future. 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.  

“I think if you’re really, really serious about carbon, then natural gas is not a sufficient solution,” Webber says. “But if you’re really serious about efficiency, and performance, and cost, and carbon, then natural gas starts to look pretty good.”

Both Webber and Ontiveros acknowledge that energy production comes with trade-offs. If UT were to have green, zero-carbon energy rather than natural gas, it would help the environment more in the long term, but Ontiveros says it would also require raised tuition to cover costs.

“We have some very basic, simple philosophies,” Ontiveros says. “Do the right thing. If you can benefit the dollar that we have here on our operations and sustain and protect our jobs, but also protect the environment and the student, this wins for everybody.”

Benefiting the greater good has been at the core of the system since its founding. The outside walls of the original power plant as well as the more recent construction are adorned by the names of scientists from the field, such as Thomas Edison, James Watt, and Benjamin Franklin. The complex itself is named after 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. Ontiveros, who became associate vice president in 2014, has been leading the complex into the 21st century ever since he joined the plant in 1998 as the director of utilities.  

Ontiveros is dedicated to his job, and there’s an inspiring enthusiasm behind everything he says. He uses a lot of energy buzzwords, like “efficiency” and “reliability.” The latter is a key focus for Ontiveros as he keeps the lights on throughout the 20 million square-foot campus, 80 percent of which is research-focused. Even with such a big load, the campus has had only five outages in the last 54 years.

The last time the system was down was about three years ago, which Ontiveros says came from an error on the City of Austin’s side, a risk of being connected to them for backup. As summer heat climbs to record-breaking temperatures, high energy demand is likely to cause an increase in power outages across the state electrical grid, keeping Ontiveros’ staff on their toes and ready to island the campus if something goes awry.  

“What this means to us is we have to be more reliable,” Ontiveros says. “The pressure is on us, because the campus is used to not having power outages.”  

But even with the higher risk in the summer, UT will still be able to maintain their consistency. Unlike residential homes, UT’s campus operates at a more commercial and industrial level, producing a relatively even distribution of power production throughout the day and year. The plant’s five cooling stations produce 60,600 tons of chilled water, enough to cool 30,000 homes. So as the Texas grid gears up for an uncertain summer, UT will keep cool, just as it has done for close to 90 years.  

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 mean more 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.  

“The main thing people should know is that 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.”  

Photos courtesy of Utilities and Energy Management.


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