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Dave Cox (pictured above) remembers the day in 2000 when he was photographed looking up at the boiler exhaust stack of SAIT’s brand new mobile cogeneration unit, known as the MCU. SAIT was holding a “pre-official” opening to show off the MCU and the TV cameras were rolling as Cox and his Power Plant colleagues fired it up.
It was a pretty big deal. The cogen unit — which uses natural gas to create both steam heat and electricity — had been trucked all the way from Oklahoma along with a brochure that boasted: “The right answer for your total energy needs.” At a time when Alberta’s electricity industry had been partially deregulated, the MCU promised the “predictability and reliability” of generating electricity without having to build a large on-site cogeneration plant.
“Back in 2000, it was probably one of the first cogen units in a polytechnic or a college,” says Cox, now the Power Plant Building Operations Coordinator in SAIT’s Facilities Management department. “Today we use it to generate roughly 30% of our heat and 30% of our power for the campus, and it gives us a stable load at a stable energy rate.”
The day that photo was taken wasn’t, however, the first time the Institute made onsite energy production history. In 1922, when the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (it became SAIT in 1960) moved to “a stately castle on the north hill of Calgary,” it fired up its very own coal and steam generator and became the first post-secondary in Canada to generate electricity.
That generator was housed in PITA’s small, purpose built brick power plant, later named for Eugene Coste, who discovered natural gas in Alberta. In the 1920s, people didn’t worry too much about energy efficiency, there wasn’t much fretting about widespread use of coal to generate electricity and no one ever uttered the term ‘greenhouse gas emissions.’
Now, as coal is increasingly phased out from power plants and the entire world is talking about how to reduce emissions, SAIT is considering getting a new cogen unit. “There’s always something newer, better, faster, more efficient,” says Brad Boser, Director, Facilities Management. “So we look at upgrading the cogen unit as being one example of, ‘OK, we can replace like with like, and we know it’s going to add value. But how can it add more value?’”
SAIT’s answer to that question might be unexpected in any other school. That’s because, in addition to potential savings on energy bills by generating heat, humidity, hot water and electrical cooling — as well as making money by selling surplus electricity back to the grid — there’s also lots of potential for using a new cogen unit to enrich curriculum with hands-on learning opportunities in programs ranging from business to architectural technologies.
“As the energy market onboards ‘prosumers’ — consumers who also produce energy — the opportunity to export energy for time-of-use delivery offers us some innovative technology solutions,” says David Silburn, Associate Director, Sustainable Operations in Facilities Management. “We’re currently exploring how a new cogen unit and other generation technologies such as solar and batteries could enable SAIT to export surplus power back into the grid, a source of revenue that could contribute to the Institute’s bottom line.”
Silburn, who spent a decade developing and managing SAIT’s Green Building Technologies research initiative, now leads the Sustainable Operations team that’s exploring the idea of a new cogen unit. The team — which includes campus experts in energy management, sustainable engagement, power plant operations, lifecycle asset management and building energy performance — is currently installing meters and collecting other benchmarking data.
“From this initial benchmark, we can identify our priorities to either produce savings or generate energy on campus.”
“We’re conducting a horizontal infrastructure study to look at all of SAIT’s underground services, including water, irrigation, data, gas and electrical services,” says Silburn. “Part of that study will install campus-wide metering to analyze and assess how much energy we need now and how we can build capacity for the future. From this initial benchmark, we can identify our priorities to either produce savings or generate energy on campus.”
While the current cogen unit is nearly 20 years old, Dave Cox and the team of onsite power engineers keep its KawasakiM1A-13A turbines and Marathon AC generators functioning smoothly 24/7 as they manage electrical loads on campus.
“A more efficient cogeneration unit is just one of many opportunities to make improvements across the spectrum,” Silburn says. “The Sustainable Operations team will measure, forecast and create a business case for both short- and long-term investments that will leverage SAIT’s partnerships with industry and possible government assistance programs.”
Already this process has identified a great deal of low-hanging fruit — everything from energy, water and waste conservation measures, to highly motivated faculty and staff, to opportunities to develop and offer courses in sustainability.”
As well as “doing the things we need to do every day to keep the lights on,” Boser says Facilities Management also works hard to make campus a living lab.
“As we’re making capital-investment decisions about technology we need to repair or replace or upgrade, we’re talking with the SAIT schools that may be impacted and asking, ‘Well, how could this process involve your students?’”
Working with SAIT’s own infrastructure can give students valuable hands-on experience before they even graduate — something that also benefits those who employ grads. One of those employers is SAIT itself. “We understand that what we produce in terms of manpower, especially in the apprenticeship side, is what we then employ to do the maintenance on campus,” says Boser.
Dave Cox is a case in point. He started working with SAIT’s Building Operations in 1982 and, after taking night classes in power engineering, graduated in 1998. Cox worked in the Power Plant more than 25 years before moving to Building Operations coordination, where he oversaw a team of six — many of whom are fellow SAIT grads.
Today Cox is a member of the Sustainable Operations team, and says he and his colleagues are always happy to have the latest cohort of students come through as part of their programs.
“We really look forward to having the students in, because they keep us sharp.They ask lots of questions,” Cox says. Boser reports some student capstone projects over the years have collected data about campus infrastructure “that are actually better than what we get from consultants.”
“Our buildings, equipment and infrastructure must all reflect the energy needs and constraints facing students, industry partners and all Albertans.”
Whether those students are studying business, power engineering, architecture, electrical engineering or sustainable hospitality services, their exposure to the inner workings of the very buildings where they take classes offers new ways of looking at Alberta’s energy market. And working with a newer, more efficient cogen unit would demonstrate SAIT’s triple bottom line approach to ongoing maintenance that calculates the financial, social and environmental costs and benefits of its operations.
Both Boser and Silburn say Facilities Management has an important role to play in the student experience.
“Our role is to provide resource opportunities for people to grow and learn,” says Silburn. “Our buildings, equipment and infrastructure must all reflect the energy needs and constraints facing students, industry partners and all Albertans.”
While it may be a while before any photo opps show off a new cogen unit, Cox is chuffed at the notion. “The opportunity to be a part of installing a more efficient cogeneration unit with greater capacity is exciting,” he says. And while he’s looking forward to working with more modern equipment, he’s not too worried about whether, this time around, it’s him standing next to that gleaming silver stack — or someone from a whole new generation of SAIT grads.