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MU energy management needs super-powered staff

MU energy management needs super-powered staff

If you had a crack team in charge of optimizing the efficiency and innovation of your business I imagine it might look a like this: Thomas Edison, my Grandma Georgie, Batman and Sacagawea.

Not dissimilar to this composite is the team at the University of Missouri-Columbia Energy Management Department, efficiency experts who know what it’s like to be invisible. Rarely do people on campus think, “Gee, I’m comfortable” or “Wow, I can see in the dark.”

In 1882 Thomas Edison donated an electrical generator to the engineering school at MU. By 1892 the university had its first power house. In January 1923, the plant on Stewart Road went into operation. This legacy of innovation has endured for the last 84 years.

Living through the Great Depression, my Grandma Georgie learned how to get the most out of everything. At Energy Management, Paul Coleman takes on a similar role, as a manager in charge of energy conservation as well as energy controls and chilled water. His team uses high-tech methods, combined with common sense, to optimize the energy produced by the plant.
On his computer a real-time map indicates whether rooms are occupied and displays the air flow and temperature. He can turn the lights on and off or change set temperature points to gain efficiency.

On the day I visit his control center, we override the system, telling it an unoccupied room now has someone inside. The room adjusts.

Paul’s team is just as adept at changing with the technology. No money-saving detail is too small to consider, from energy-efficient light bulbs to window film. These efforts have saved MU $3.8 million per year, or the equivalent of $155 per student in annual tuition. As Grandma Georgie would say, “That’s stretching a dollar.”

Next I meet Greg Coffin, P.E. superintendent at the MU Power Plant. Greg, like Batman, does superhuman things with the help of engineering. The plant—consisting of coal fire boilers, a gas-fired boiler, steam turbine generators and two jet engines—heats, cools and lights the campus. His 60 full-time employees keep the home fires of MU burning, literally, 24/7.
He opens one of the doors to the coal boilers. Exposure to the immense heat is like driving due west on an August afternoon. Around us plant workers are making repairs and cleaning equipment. Before microwave ovens, plant workers brought lunches wrapped in foil, setting them on the boilers for a hot meal, Greg recalls.

In the operations room, enormous monitors line the walls. They show the news, weather, plant systems, water wells, plant security cameras and current cost of a megawatt of energy on the wholesale market. Monitoring the wholesale market allows the plant the flexibility to purchase energy at a lower cost when available. Keith Getz (the lead plant operator), not unlike a stockbroker, monitors the market for those dips in mega watt cost.
An alarm goes off. Keith answers the call. An ash depository he’s been cleaning is empty. The system returns to normal.

The MU Power Plant receives 20 to 25 truckloads of coal per day. The stoker grade coal is crushed to size and then washed to improve quality, lowering its sulfur and ash content. The plant also runs a program in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Corrections to burn chipped tires from recovered waste tire dumpsites.
How is the energy generated in this room distributed to campus? Even Batman has Robin. That’s the job of Curtis Flatt and the utilities distribution team. They survey and repair the 26 miles of water piping, 24 miles of steam lines and 65 circuit miles of electric conduit. We head into the tunnels, echoing with the thunking sound of vehicles overhead, looking for leaks. It’s humid. We step over a stream of water and crouch down to locate the source. The pipe will need to be repaired. Fortunately, it was a small leak; larger leaks can raise the temperature as high as 175 degrees. Next we’re off to a substation.

These substations are not that different from the breaker box I have at home, if each breaker was roughly the size of my washing machine. Working in pairs, a team removes and tests each breaker. They run 45,000 volts through each. James Smith and John James explain how to run a discharge test on the springs.

Rusty Burry directs me to the open and close test buttons for the breaker.
I push the close button. The room reverberates with an extremely loud pop. I’m startled. My anxiety is heightened by the charred flash suit Curtis showed me earlier. Thanks to the suit, that employee walked away unharmed but shaken. I push the open button. I know the pop is coming; still I jump.
Now where did we put those 200 miles of underground utility lines? Locating underground utilities, especially under snow or mulch, or in the dark, can be time-consuming. My last job of the day is with Bryan Comer and Dan Riepe; like Sacagawea, they help create maps. Not only do they locate lines, they tell you how deep each line is buried and of what it’s made. They use geographic information via global position system technology to map everything from parking spaces to mulch beds.

Zooming out of the power plant on a golf cart, Dan and I are off to map the location of a fire hydrant. We drive around pedestrians, over sidewalks and across college traffic. (I’m glad the golf cart has seat belts.) This information goes toward the 4,000 maps Dan prints every year.
When we return, my day with Energy Management is done.

At home I turn on my laptop and wonder whether somewhere Thomas Edison, Grandma Georgie, Sacagawea and the creator of Batman are discussing efficiency, innovation and the invisible man. v

For more information on innovations and procedures of MU’s Energy Management go to

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