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Steam Plant parking lot. Photo by Jason Gentile

Steam Plant renovations are underway

The University of Maine Central Steam Plant is an essential infrastructure that allows the university to function. As part of the university’s long-term Carbon Commitment goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040 and to ensure the continued reliability of a critical piece of infrastructure, a new addition to the Central Steam Plant is intended to be built.

In 2016, UMaine put out a request for proposals to find a solution for its energy needs, and in February 2018, the right to negotiate was awarded to Honeywell International. Honeywell did not initially win the bid and was the runner-up behind ConEdison, a New York-based firm. 

ConEdison withdrew following some articles by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram alleging that a university official improperly coached ConEdison on their proposal as well as a personal financial connection between the chancellor of the UMaine system and a company that would benefit from ConEdison receiving the contract.

The university maintains that ConEdison withdrew based on conditions outside of their control. ConEdison said they would have been unable to provide a firm pricing offer by the university deadline.

The project has changed immensely since it was awarded to Honeywell. Initially, it was a combined heating and power plant near the East Substation. A four-megawatt solar array was also proposed. The project, as currently proposed, consists of an addition to the existing steam plant facility and an upgrade to the UMaine campus electrical distribution system. Campus Energy and Utility Manager Michael Swartz described this as a fundamentally different project.

The addition to the steam plant, the UMaine Energy Center (UMEC), is more accurately described as a replacement for the current plant, which has been in continuous operation since 1906. 

“UMaine’s energy history is a true testament to our Mainer ethos of keeping things up and running well beyond their expected design life,” said Dan Dixon, the UMaine Sustainability Director. 

Dixon standing in front of presentation prepared to answer questions. Photo by Nathan Deveney

Once UMEC becomes operational, most of the old steam plant will be mothballed.

An integral part of UMEC is that it would run entirely on renewable energy sources and have fuel flexibility, allowing it to respond to fluctuating energy markets. The built-in fuel flexibility will enable the plant to take advantage of future developments in renewable fuel technologies.

UMEC is also being designed as an educational tool and has features such as color-coded equipment. Currently, the design includes a classroom with a glass wall where students can see the boiler room operating floor. Glass would be used heavily in the current design, allowing the plant’s interior to be seen from outside. The UMEC control room would also be viewable through interior glass walls.

According to Dixon, the project is approximately 25-50% of the way through the schematic design phase. There will be a project update to the UMS Board of Trustees in January 2024. The UMS Board must also approve the completed design of the trustees before construction. Dixon estimates that UMEC could be complete sometime in 2027-2028 but warned that the timeline depends on several factors, including the approval of the Board.

According to Ken Doiron, a utility and infrastructure planner/project manager, the UMEC final design will likely be presented to the Board of Trustees for construction approval in the spring of 2025.

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