by Lauren Lewis
Warren Weaver Hall at New York University fades into the New York City landscape. Sitting on the corner of West 4th Street and Mercer, the brown brick building has a stream of students and passerby typical to the area. Outside of the building sits a small park with benches and petite garden beds. The area is comparable to the other buildings at New York University. However, this structure holds a secret hidden beneath layers of concrete.
A grey door sits within the lobby of Warren Weaver Hall. Behind it lie two flights of stairs. As you descend, the floor vibrations and temperature quickly begin to increase. The maze of white halls and steps lead to rooms of industrial machines. They also lead to the workplace of Ken Higgins, an engineer at NYU’s cogeneration plant.
Higgins’ stature is tall and somewhat rugged, which contrasts his calm, even personality. Today he is leading a tour with a Wagner Environmental Policy and Action group. Higgins appears a bit bored as he introduces himself and somewhat outlines the tour—a trip into the entrails of the plant and a description of its engineering and sustainability innovations. His bored persona quickly disappears as soon as he begins to actually describe the plant. His interest is obvious, and you can feel the group getting excited for their trip downstairs.
NYU’s cogeneration plant sits in what Higgins refers to as a “essentially a huge cement bathtub.” It is 44 feet deep, 400 feet wide, and 320 feet long. The cogeneration plant burns natural gas to move large turbines. This process produces high-pressured steam that is used to create 2.2 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to fully power twenty-one of NYU’s buildings. However, the plant is left with about 150 pounds of waste steam. Typically, plants would emit the scalding steam into the atmosphere. Higgins explains that this is where a cogeneration plant differs from convention. Instead of releasing the steam, it is captured and used to either heat or cool the water supply.
The plant has the capacity to produce 4,160 volts of electricity, which is what the 21 buildings need at maximum capacity. This creates a balancing act of sorts. “We have a choice. We can choose to produce less power, but typically we sell it back to ConEd,” says Higgins. This causes the plant to have an intimate relationship with ConEdison, who produces energy for the majority of Manhattan.
A member of the tour group asks Higgins if ConEd dislikes the plant, since it decreases some of their business. Higgins chuckles lightly and says, “Well, it’s interesting. You would think they wouldn’t want to get along with something like this, but they don’t have a choice.” According to Higgins, ConEd can hardly keep up with the demand of New York, so the cogeneration plant is really doing them a favor.
Though the plant may be somewhat unknown to much of the NYU community, it proves to be pretty progressive within the scheme of American sustainable energy. Mark Phiscator, an experienced engineer dealing with sustainable energy sources says, “So much of the electricity, at least in the United States, is generated by coal burning utility companies, and burning coal puts a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. [Conventional] electrical generation is not very efficient at all.”
The cogeneration plant is not a conventional source of electricity, though, and Higgins makes sure to point out its importance to the university’s sustainable initiatives. He begins listing the facts and figures about the plant. Since cogeneration is a more sustainable source, it allowed for a 23% decrease in the school’s production of carbon dioxide and a 63% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. The change in energy also saves between 6 to 8 million dollars per year. Higgins makes sure to specify that this number does not include the free heating and cooling produced by the steam. “I’d guess that it’s close to saving the university $12 million a year,” Higgins says.
The stability of the plant was highlighted last fall, when the entire plant was brought into the public eye. In light of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, darkness fell over lower Manhattan. Before the storm surge hit, ConEd considered the chances of power loss and debated turning off power. They decided not to shut down preemptively, but the cogeneration plant did.
“There’s always the risk that the public company will have something catastrophic that can take us out, too,” says Higgins. Since the power lines of the plant are connected with ConEd’s, the plant went into island mode, which completely detached them from the other company. If the plant had not made this decision, they probably would have been completely knocked out, too.
Though many residence halls and outlying buildings were left powerless, the plant was able to illuminate the main academic buildings and nearby residences. This enabled students to eat, shower, and recharge electronics in a time of panic and distress. Yonghwi Kim, a freshman in the Stern School of business explains that the electricity was very reassuring. “I was in Weinstein, and it was the only dorm with everything,” says Kim. “I didn’t expect the blackout, especially that it would last for days.”
As students were beginning to relax after the storm, the cogeneration plant was under incredible stress, and Higgins leadership was tested. He and his coworkers felt pressure to keep everything running smoothly. The plant’s production is monitored constantly, but under normal circumstances, if something went wrong, power could be supplied by ConEd without a problem. That obviously was not the case during Sandy.
“We were proud of the fact that there wasn’t so much as a blip,” says Higgins, his face glowing with satisfaction. He may have been working overtime, but his happiness with the outcome is obvious.
Regardless of the saving efforts of the plant, students are slowly forgetting about the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and the saving power from the cogeneration plant. As students and professors continue to bustle in classrooms above, Higgins will remain underground, constantly working to ensure that the students do not need to worry about where they are getting power. He almost seems to have a goal of invisibility. “It’s a cogeneration plant, so it needs to be fluid,” he says. “The consumer can’t see a blip.” And thanks to Higgins, no blips have been seen.
Want to learn more about sustainable energy in the United States? Listen to Mark Phiscator discuss sustainable sources and the future of America’s energy.