Safety, sustainability, and service guide Virginia Tech power plant operations
Since its beginnings in the early 1900s, Virginia Tech power plant operations have been governed by three enduring principles: safety, sustainability, and service.
The Virginia Tech power plant is the only university-owned facility in the Commonwealth of Virginia to provide heating, cooling, and electricity. Twenty-four hours-a-day, steam is generated into electricity to power everyday life at Virginia Tech.
Warm classrooms, hot showers, and bright lights are mainstays on cold days and even chillier evenings in Blacksburg.
Guided by a steadfast Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) mentality, the 37 hardworking employees of Virginia Tech’s power plant ensure the university community doesn’t have to think twice about whether hot water will come out of the faucet or warm air out of vents.
“It’s a blessing to be able to work in this world,” said Ted Acord, power plant maintenance manager. “We maintain the campus compressed air supply and domestic hot water, which is utilized in labs for air handling units and a lot of control systems. The steam from the power plant is used to heat the buildings.” In other words, electricity and steam generated from the power plant are used everywhere.
The strong sense of community and service to others keeps employees at the power plant coming to work each day to quite literally keep the lights on at Virginia Tech.
Safety and operational efficiency
“Working here, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are keeping the students and everybody warm and the hot water and compressed air supplied to the campus,” said Billy Dudding, associate director of utilities and the power plant. “It’s something that we all take pride in. We also take pride in ensuring a safe working environment.
"My biggest priority is that everyone gets to go home at the end of the day," Dudding continued. "We can only do this by being very strict on our annual boiler inspections and maintaining all of our equipment up to code."
Powering the everyday activities of the university is facilitated by stringent safety and environmental protection protocols at the plant, including safety training, annual equipment inspections, close monitoring of nitrogen oxide (NOx) output levels, and more.
“Virginia Tech power plant operates a Combined Heat and Power Plant (CHP) that runs at nearly 82 percent efficiency, compared to a conventional power plant that operates at 35 percent efficiency. The approximately $3 million saved in electricity costs reduces emissions and carbon footprint that allows for long-term investments in renewable energy sources,” said Mary-Ann Ibeziako, assistant vice president for infrastructure.
The power plant is at the center of Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment implementation efforts toward carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable electricity.
Under the commitment, the Virginia Tech power plant will become completely powered by natural gas by 2025 to help the university achieve goals of 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2030. And they’re already ahead of schedule.
The power plant continues operations through strategic equipment installation to proactively reduce its nitrogen oxide output levels.
As the power plant enters its second year of operation on solely natural gas, a new rotor for the turbine was delivered and installed this fall. The new rotor, which is aligned at an equivalent of a human hair, will help maximize efficiency in electricity production.
The new rotor installation followed a 2019 acquisition of an additional natural gas boiler, which allows the plant to more comfortably operate with only natural gas. The natural gas boiler operates at a nitrogen oxide level of 0.032 lbs/mmbtu, while a coal boiler operates at 0.246 lbs/mmbtu.
“When I started working at the power plant 33 years ago, if you told me we would be able to operate the campus without any coal, I would have never believed it. This is a real achievement,” said Dudding.
Looking ahead, a Utility Master Plan is under development to map out the strategies that will ensure the power plant meets Virginia Tech’s 2030 and 2050 climate action commitments.