Steam Green: Cogen Plant a Sustainable Alternative

These past few months, undoubtedly, many have sought warmth and relief from the outside air within the University of Rochester campus buildings. Many years ago, the University heated those buildings on campus by burning coal and distributing steam. As technology developed and became more affordable, the University of Rochester opted for a more energy and cost efficient mechanism of generating energy. That option was the Cogen plant.

Cogen, short for cogeneration, means the simultaneous generation of electricity and heating hot water from a singular fuel source. Because of the duel energy output derived from burning just one fuel, the Cogen plants have an efficiency rate of 75% to 80% meaning lower costs and less impact on the environment.

The Cogen plant at the University of Rochester was built in 2005 and serves both the River Campus and the Medical Center. The Central Utilities plant has four steam boilers with two steam turbine generators. Natural gas is burned in the boilers that output high-pressure steam. The steam then turns a turbine and through a generator produces electricity. The steam exhaust heats the campus hot water loop to a maximum of 220 degrees Fahrenheit and the water is then pumped and delivered to both the Medical Center and River Campus through an underground piping system.

The Cogen plant is energy efficient in multiple ways. Firstly, hot water heating is much more efficient than steam heating. Secondly, because natural gas is used to run the boilers, fewer greenhouse gas emissions are generated. “When the University went from coal to gas and No. 2 oil it cut down on the CO2 emissions tremendously,” says Director of Utilities and Energy Management, Steve Mischissin.

Switching to the Cogen plant also yields an increase in internal energy manufacturing.  Previously, the University bought much of their energy from a local utility. The purchase of energy from a third party source meant higher costs and a lack of transparency toward energy practices. Now Mischissin says, “1/3 of our electrical energy is generated internally,” and under circumstances that Facilities can manage and monitor.

As of now, all of the student residencies are heated through using campus hot water and most other buildings on campus have joined them. While Colleges and Universities across the nation are beginning to implement a cogeneration system of heating, the University of Rochester is ahead of the curve. In fact, Cornell University only just switched from coal about three years ago!

Mischissin and his team have two goals in mind with regard to utilities; to reduce energy use at the start and reduce the emissions generated. Examples of these efforts include the new occupancy sensors located in new buildings on campus, such as LeChase Hall, that determine if people are in the building. If the occupancy is zero, the temperature of the building is automatically lowered, preventing energy waste. The temperatures in campus structures are also automatically lowered at night to save energy. Lastly, Facilities and Services have and continue to switch lighting fixtures to energy efficient LEDs, a recent project being light conversions in the Rush Rhees Library Dome.

The numbers show these efforts are working. Despite the expansion of the campus and the construction of new buildings, electricity consumption has remained essentially flat over the last four to five years. Mischissin summarizes “Our goal is to produce utilities at the cheapest cost and as efficiently as we can.”


Written by Julie Elliot, Class of 2015

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