Cogeneration: A New Approach to Cost Reduction

By Daniel Galperin (ChE ’18)

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author alone. The numbers, however, are factual.

With so many things happening at The Cooper Union ranging from administrative to operational changes, there is quite a bit of talk about the need to spend less. Acting Dean Stock spoke about “living within our means” when interviewed by The Pioneer previously this semester, and Acting President Mea said “the goal is to become operationally adequate so we can at least break even and spend no more than we earn.”

Previously, discussion of reducing Cooper’s expenses orbited around the earnings of certain administrators. Of course I agree that the numbers seem excessive, and I remember how bewildered I was the first time I heard them, but maybe it’s time for a new approach. Why keep beating the dead horse, when there are other ways for the school to save money. I think our operational adequacy can come from resources that are already in place and perhaps could be optimized.

Cogenerator on the roof of the NAB

Cogenerator on the roof of the NAB. Photo from Prof Baglione’s faculty page.

In a building full of complex chemical instruments, machining equipment and a flux of 1,000 people in and out, extremely large amounts of energy are consumed daily. The New Academic Building consumes an average of 600 kilowatts (the equivalent of about 200 households).

I spoke to Professor Melody Baglione, who incorporates many of the sustainable systems in our building into projects for mechanical engineering students. Prof Baglione was kind enough to explain the complicated process of how the cogenerator produces electricity and heat, but more importantly she explained the cost saving aspects of the cogenerator. 

“…it is estimated to save the Cooper Union $200,000 annually”

The building has two utility service lines for metering electricity purchased from the Con Edison utility grid.  Each meter would read roughly the same electricity consumption, but with cogeneration, the amount of electricity Cooper Union needs to purchase for the second service line is reduced by as much as 250 kW.  The cogenerator uses natural gas purchased from the grid to produce electricity and heat for the building and is located on the roof of the NAB. Onsite cogeneration is more efficient than purchasing electricity from the grid since otherwise wasted heat is captured for use. It was installed in the NAB at the cost of $1.2 million dollars, but with a grant of $400,000 from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority as a combined heat and power (CHP) incentive.

Despite the high cost of installation of the cogenerator, it is estimated to save the Cooper Union $200,000 annually. The actual savings depend on the actual run hours and fluctuating natural gas and electricity rates. It is important to note that as the cost of natural gas goes down and the cost of electricity goes up, cogeneration saves the school even more money.

The cogenerator isn’t some superhero though; it’s not flawless. Prof Baglione mentions that an element called the absorption chiller is not working at the moment. I was assured that it isn’t an integral part of the cogenerator, as it is only used in the summer to help cool the building by using the excess heat it generates through some nifty refrigeration process or other. However the discussion of repairing the absorption chiller hinges on whether or not it is a good enough investment. This is to say, “will repairing this item cost more money than the item will save us?”

An energy diagram showing how cogeneration uses less energy.

An energy diagram showing how cogeneration uses less energy. 

It also came up in discussion that there happens to be another cogenerator on the roof of the Foundation Building. Although the NAB consumes around two-thirds of the energy of the campus (where “campus” is defined as the NAB, Foundation Building and dorms), the Foundation Building constitutes a significant amount of energy cost for the Cooper Union as well.

As of now, the Foundation Building cogenerator is not working at all, which may be due to the way the cogeneration plant was initially tied into the building’s existing systems. Professor Baglione, along with Joe Viola (ME ‘16), are working with the Facilities staff to understand the best options for getting the cogenerator at the Foundation Building up and running again.  She drew a parallel between the “investment” arguments made previously. More research and analysis needs to be done before any real claims are made, but according to Prof Baglione the savings that the Foundation Building cogenerator could produce would probably outweigh the cost of repair.

Perhaps the cogenerators are helpful but not helpful enough for the investment involved in repairing them. On the other hand, perhaps the cogenerators can be repaired or optimized and save our school a lot of money. Either way, we need to look into other methods of balancing the operational budget instead of banging the “fire everyone” drum. I think this might be a good place to start.

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