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ISSUE 117 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/14/2003

Plant holds a powerful mystery

By Lauren Radomski
Staff Writer

Friday, November 14, 2003

On the east side of campus, built into the hill, sits a mysterious building with a protruding smokestack. Although most people acknowledge its presence, few truly understand its purpose and the crucial role it plays in daily life at St. Olaf.

What is this building, and why is it so important? It is none other than the St. Olaf power plant, which distributes electric power to campus buildings and provides heating, cooling, and domestic hot water – making all of our lives easier.

The plant buys water from the town of Northfield and stores some of it underground. The water is softened while reverse osmosis systems remove minerals from it. Three boilers, heated by natural gas and No. 2 fuel oil, produce steam that is distributed by three one-hundred horsepower pumps through underground tunnels to various campus buildings. This steam is used for space heating, as well as for domestic hot water, which is the water we use to take showers, brush our teeth or wash dishes. After the steam delivers heat to the buildings, it travels back to the plant as condensate – liquid water, where it re-enters the boilers, only to become steam once more.

A separate water loop is responsible for the cooling of the water. Chillers–machines that can be likened to giant refrigerators – cool a separate flow of water that also travels through pipes in the tunnels and arrives in buildings to provide air conditioning.

Electricity comes into the plant from the Northfield Power Company, and travels via conduits–special piping that contains electrical wiring – into the buildings on campus.

Because St. Olaf’s plant is considered a high-pressure steam plant, a licensed, operating engineer is on duty at all times, making sure things run smoothly, explained Perry Kruse, assistant director of facilities for engineering services.

Should there be a power outage, the plant and a smaller building adjacent to it have the capacity to generate heat and electricity without the power company's help. During a recent campus-wide power outage, two sixteen-cylinder diesel generators restored the power in only a matter of minutes.

According to Joseph M. Shaw’s book "Dear Old Hill," the power plant went into operation during December of 1923, replacing an older plant that stood on the site now occupied by the east end of Holland Hall. When the new plant was built, “kerosene lamps and wood stoves were replaced by electric lights and steam radiators.” The new plant was completed in 1937, but received some renovations in the 1960s. Up until 1970, it also served as the town crematory.

The plant is currently undergoing some renovations because parts of the original walls, which are built of limestone and reinforced concrete, are beginning to deteriorate, writes Shaw. The plant’s current maintenance staff is intent on keeping the building in the best shape it can possibly be.

“Keeping things fixed and looking good,” said Bill Nelson, assistant director of facilities for building services, “is a labor of love.”

Nelson described the plant staff as “good, capable, hardworking, problem-solving people [who] are fun to be around.” The facilities staff is comprised of about sixty-five people, including custodians, groundskeepers, mechanical maintenance workers, office staff, electricians, painters, carpenters and a locksmith.

“The best thing about being involved in power plant activities,” said Nelson, “is that the job is instantly rewarding. The fruits of our labor are on display every day.”

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