In the early hours of the morning, much of campus is in the ghostly twilight hour between the moon’s set and the sun’s rise.
A weary, coffee-starved undergrad notes his laptop’s battery failing, and plugs it into his dorm outlet to keep working on a paper. Power arrives immediately, flowing through the lines from campus’s Abbott Power Plant, where chief utility plant operating engineer Russ Reynolds is already at work, checking boilers, gas turbines, and generators, making sure everything is in top working order.
“Our goal here is continuing to maintain our plant’s status as one of the best in its class,” Reynolds said. “We’re here to support a world-class university, and the challenge is providing nonstop reliable, environmentally friendly energy to meet the school’s needs.”
The Abbott plant supplies campus with over half of its power needs, and all of its steam for heating and hot water. Reynolds manages the day to day activities of the combined heat and power plant, working under the plant’s overall director, Mike Larson.
Part of that challenge includes making sure that the plant’s power production matches the university’s needs. He mentioned the university’s recently built Blue Waters supercomputer as an example. The Blue Waters facility is presently designed to consume up to 25 megawatts of power, which is almost a third of the university's total peak consumption rate of 84 megawatts.
“A large part of my job is planning - when we do planning, we do it in stages, from near term to all the way to 15 years out,” Reynolds mentioned. “Part of what we here do is account for huge spikes in power needs, and plan for us to meet those needs so that we are not what holds the university back from world-class experimental research.”
Apart from helping plan the plant’s future, Reynolds coordinates maintenance on the equipment, decides what resources the plant uses to generate power, and interfaces with the other engineers and contractors working on the plant. The plant never stops running, and a huge part of Reynolds’ job is to keep in touch with and manage the operations and maintenance staff working in the plant.
“I make sure to check in with the overnight guys when I come in early, then with the daytime guys throughout the morning and afternoon, making sure everyone’s concerns are met and coordinating all the activities of the operators and contractors,” Reynolds said. “Apart from interfacing with people, there’s also providing solid technical expertise to make sure we are doing the things we need to do, and that the equipment is safe and reliable to operate.”
The Abbott plant provides campus with approximately half of its power needs, with Ameren providing the other half. It’s done so without a single disruption in power in over three years.
Reynolds mentioned that the plant is highly efficient due to its using the waste heat from power generation to create the steam that campus uses for heating and hot water. Impressively, he noted that the plant is efficient enough that it takes the equivalent of 18,000 cars off the road when compared to conventional plants’ carbon dioxide emissions.
“Every time someone on campus turns on a light, takes a hot shower, or uses an electron microscope, that’s power we work hard to make sure is dependable and environmentally friendly,” Reynolds said.
Though the challenges are steep, Reynolds can’t help but let a little of his pride show in the plant’s effectiveness, both in its service record and the fact that the plant’s environmental standards are significantly higher than state and federal requirements.
“The plant never shuts down, and I get here usually before 6 in the morning and can stay till the late afternoon and later if need be. It sounds stressful, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t having fun,” Reynolds said. “I enjoy every aspect of the job and the people I work with, and as long as my health’s good, I’m happy to stick around.”