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November 1, 2023

UMaine eyes upgrades to century-old steam plant on Orono campus

rendering of old and new buildings with people walking on sidewalk Courtesy / University of Maine The proposed steam plant addition, shown here in a rendering, would be able to provide 100% renewable energy.

The University of Maine in Orono has a proposal in the works to upgrade its campus steam plant with an addition that would deliver 100% renewable energy.

“Most of our current steam plant’s infrastructure is beyond its useful life,” said Daniel Dixon, the director of the UMaine Office of Sustainability and a research assistant professor with the Climate Change Institute.

The original plant was built in 1906 on the bank of the Stillwater River, and a brick stack was erected in 1931. Three of the plant's four boilers date to the 1950s and 1960s.

"It is long overdue for a major upgrade," Dixon said.

old brick building with two chimneys
Courtesy / University of Maine
UMaine Orono’s central steam plant was built in 1906 and contains boilers dating to the 1950s and 1960s.

The goal is to build an addition to ensure that heating service continues without interruption to the Orono campus buildings. The project is still in the design phase and the cost has yet to be determined, Eric Gordon, director of university communications, told Mainebiz.

“We are continuing to work through the design phase at which time we will get a firm fixed price,” Gordon said.

Honeywell International Inc. (Nasdaq: HON) was chosen as the designer and builder, based on a request for proposals. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company in a multinational conglomerate that does business in energy system design and deployment.

If all approvals are received, UMaine expects to break ground on the plant expansion in 2026, give or take six months. The plant would be ready to go online a year or two later.

Once completed, the central steam plant addition is expected to provide 100% renewable energy, using a variety of eco-friendly liquid and gas fuels. The addition is considered a key component of UMaine’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and will allow the university to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The new capacity will also help minimize the impact of volatile changes in fuel market prices.

aerial rendering of old and new buildings with streets and parking lots
Courtesy / University of Maine
The proposed addition would be built next to the existing plant, with the goal of minimizing fossil fuel dependence on and exposure to volatile prices.

Currently, peak heating operations require the use of two natural gas-fired boilers to meet the campus’s need for heat. A third oil-fired boiler is kept in “hot standby mode” during peak season in case one of the lead boilers goes offline. 

The steam distribution system serves nearly the entire Orono campus, including 90 buildings, through 4.7 miles of underground steam pipes and 119 steam pits.

“The steam plant is essential to the university’s daily operations,” said Dixon.  

UMaine also plans to upgrade the electricity distribution system for the campus to accommodate expected growth. Currently, UMaine has two power substations that serve approximately 98% of the school's demand via 12.8 miles of electric cable. 

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