Higher Education: Project Update, University of North Dakota’s Natural Gas Steam Plant

The University of North Dakota (UND) was the cover feature for the Spring Issue of Energy Services Today, published in March 2020. Through a 40-year public-private partnership with Johnson Controls, UND was able to replace a coal-burning steam plant and implement energy improvements around campus. 

When the issue was published, Johnson Controls was nearing the commissioning phase, and UND was preparing for the plant to be operational within the coming months. 

Below is a story published by UND Today on October 15, 2020, a day after the new plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

‘Unseen,’ ‘unheard’ – and a loud-and-proud example for N.D.

By Tom Dennis, UND Associate Director of Communications

UND archival image.

It’s not just a steam plant”, Gov. Burgum said at the UND facility’s ribbon-cutting. “It’s a lesson in leadership for the state“.

Down a dirt road and tucked into a remote corner of the UND campus is a new, seemingly windowless, warehouse-sized building — a building that, though outwardly nondescript, was described by a North Dakota state representative on Oct. 14 as “a cornerstone of the entire university system.”

A North Dakota state senator at the building’s ribbon-cutting shared that excitement, congratulating UND “for a job well done.” And in a letter read at the ceremony, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum agreed, saying the building’s construction on campus resulted from “a uniquely successful model for facility management”.

“And we are extremely grateful for your efforts,” the governor continued.

The building in question is the University’s new steam plant: a $75 million facility built at no cost to North Dakota taxpayers, thanks to a public-private partnership.

Through a 40-year partnership with the University, Johnson Controls designed, built and will operate the new steam plant, transforming the way steam is generated and used throughout campus.

Flanked by state, city and Johnson Controls officials, UND President Andy Armacost cuts the ribbon on the University’s new steam plant. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Clean steam

Among other benefits, the new plant will be fueled by natural gas, not coal as had been the case in the previous, century-old facility. “On this day, we can proudly proclaim that UND is contributing to the national effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” UND President Andrew Armacost said at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting.

“The University’s new steam plant will reduce these emissions by some 40,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, equal to the carbon stored in 74 square miles of forest.”

In addition, the new steam plant includes up-to-date technology that’s expected to deliver more than $1 million per year in steam savings and lower repair costs.

At the old plant, key components were so old that replacements had to be custom made. In contrast, the new facility “is state of the art,” said Charles McGinnis, vice president of sales for Johnson Controls, in a video shown during the ceremony.

“You couldn’t have a more dramatic change. There’s a control room that’s state of the art; all the automation is incredible.”

And of course, the goal of that technology is a plant that delivers heat trouble-free. “It should be unseen and unheard,” Johnson Controls Business Development Manager Jake Terzo said in the video, “and not a concern and not a distraction to University leadership, so they can focus on what they do best: educating students and providing an environment where students and faculty and staff can thrive.”

Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today

An NDUS cornerstone

But perhaps what’s most notable about the building is the way it’s being paid for. Because as mentioned, the University — in setting up the public-private partnership — found a way to get a brand-new piece of campus infrastructure built at no cost to the state.

Through the partnership, Johnson Controls will pay off the cost of the building by selling steam to the university. UND, for its part, will pay for that steam through the University’s normal operating budget.

That’s the element that truly makes the steam plant stand out, said State Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks and the chairman of the Legislature’s Interim Higher Education Funding Committee.

“I view it as a cornerstone of the entire university system,” Sanford said at the ribbon-cutting.

Back in 2014-15, a pair of studies by Sanford’s committee painted a bleak picture of North Dakota University System facilities. The studies found most of the facilities systemwide to be in only “fair,” “poor” or “replace” condition. Furthermore, the cost of catching up could reach $400 million per biennium – “for numerous biennia,” Sanford said.

“And that’s a big gulp.”

But of all of the system’s campuses, UND has led the way in creatively addressing that problem, Sanford said. In particular, and in an approach that could be a model for the entire NDUS, the University is using several funding models for its biggest projects.

“So, for example, just go down and look at the campus right now,” Sanford said. Here are some of the financing models that have been or are being used:

  • Legislative appropriations — the traditional model — built the new medical school and expanded the law school.
  • The Gershman Graduate Center was paid for by donors Kathleen and Hal Gershman.
  • Matching programs from the state, plus a grant from the city of Grand Forks, added to Werner and Colleen Nistler’s gift to build the new home of the Nistler College of Business and Public Administration.
  • A cost-sharing partnership with the city is rebuilding University Avenue.
  • Student fees will fund the major cost of building the new Memorial Union.
  • “And we have this tremendous project here, the Three Ps: the steam plant,” built via a public-private partnership, Sanford said.

“So, thank you to Johnson Controls for being a part of this,” he concluded.

“And thank you to the University of North Dakota for leading the way for higher ed, as we deal with these issues of taking care of our facilities.”

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the North Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee, explains why the Steam Plant’s origin in a public-private partnership is so important for the state. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

‘Look and learn’

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, shared Sanford’s sense of the steam plant’s importance.

“What we’ve done in the past is perhaps not the way or the relevant model for higher education facilities in the future,” Holmberg said at the ribbon-cutting.

Holmberg thanked UND and Johnson Controls “for thinking outside of the box, and supporting the concept that state resources should be focused on the classroom and research, not on a project that the private sector was willing to fund.

“Congratulations to my two-time alma mater, UND, for a job well done,” Holmberg concluded.

“My message to the rest of the North Dakota University System is simply: ‘Look and learn.’”

In his letter that was read at the ceremony, North Dakota Gov. Burgum summed the occasion up. “The dedication today is not simply about replacing a 100-year-old steam plant,” Burgum wrote.

“It is a reflection of innovative problem solving, robust collaboration and visionary leadership, the result of which will benefit generations of North Dakotans.” Thank you, congratulations and best wishes for successful operations, the governor concluded.

Learn more, University of North Dakota Facilities Management

Read Spring Issue Cover Feature: University of North Dakota Utility P3, Johnson Controls