A Harvard Law School Green Living Rep's reflections on a tour of Harvard's Blackstone Steam Plant

Harvard makes most of its own heat.  Today, enough steam shoots out of the Blackstone Steam Plant to serve the needs of 11 million square feet of Harvard’s campus, or about 160 buildings.  The 400 degree steam shoots out of the facility and spreads out through 10 miles of pipes running along bridges over to the Allston campus and underneath the streets to the Cambridge campus.  Once it gets to the buildings, the steam is used to heat the buildings and the water.

This was literally a transformative experience for me.

I was lucky enough to visit the place where all this happens in mid-September along with Green Living reps from various schools within the university.  While the steam plant was the main attraction, we were able to see the entire Blackstone complex. 

This was literally a transformative experience for me. We began our tour with a walk around the sustainably-landscaped campus, which featured permeable paved walkways and native vegetation which simultaneously reduce storm-water runoff and eliminate the need for irrigation – saving thousands of gallons a year.  We were also introduced to the two geothermal wells located underneath the parking lot, which help cool the building in summer and heat it in winter, reducing energy consumption.

We were then led around the beautiful interior of the LEED-Platinum office of the University Operations Services.  The buildings were initially three separate structures built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Obviously, they were highly energy inefficient.  But through intelligent investment and innovative design, the university was able to transform these three wasteful buildings into one highly-efficient structure.  The renovations included bamboo and Forestry Stewardship Council wood interiors, large windows and skylights to improve natural lighting, and high-efficiency artificial lights to reduce energy consumption.  As we walked through the building we activated some of the non-motorized valences along the ceilings.  These essentially silent pieces of equipment heat and cool the building by using natural airflow, creating comfort with low environmental impact.

But of course the main event was the heat-generating steam plant.  We donned our hard hats and protective glasses and descended into the belly of the Blackstone Steam Plant.  First, we saw the sole old, inefficient oil boiler which used to generate most of the steam that flowed out of the facility but now serves only as an emergency back-up.  Then we were introduced to the more-efficient natural gas boilers.  Because it was a warm day, only one of the big steel structures was in use, but the room was noisy nonetheless.  The whole interior was crisscrossed with pipes and valves and pumps and everything seemed extraordinarily complicated, and very cool.

After investigating the boilers we were brought into the control room, half of which looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and half looked like a 1970’s disaster film.  An old switchboard on a giant control panel, complete with red warning lights and manual toggles, dominated the center of the room.  Along the top of the walls were the old pressure monitoring gauges.  But across from the control board and below the gauges were flat-screen, high-tech digital displays of everything going on in the plant.  I did not fully understand the read-outs, but the operators did.  The more advanced and accurate data allows the workers at the plant to maximize efficiency and be sure that they are generating the right amount of steam for the current needs of the University.

One of the most interesting energy-saving features of the plant was the recycling of hot water.  First, steam is generated from heated water; this steam blasts out through the network of pipes and heats the buildings throughout Harvard.  As it circulates, the steam cools and condenses back into water.  But this water is still very hot.  Instead of wasting this hot water – which is about 120 degrees - the condensate is brought back into the steam plant and mixed with incoming cool water – which is about 55 to 65 degrees.  By using the condensate, the facility increases the starting temperature of the water, reducing the amount of energy needed to boil the water.

After my trip to the Blackstone Steam Plant, I decided that I want to learn more about the energy sector and understand how it works, from top to bottom.

All this was extremely impressive, and had a real impact on me.  But the coolest part of the Blackstone Steam Plant is the 5-megawatt co-generation turbine located at the back of the facility.  This amazing device diverts some of the steam that has been produced, runs it through a turbine to generate electricity, and then shoots out the steam to do its main job of heating our buildings.  The amount of electricity generated varies with the amount of steam produced – so on colder winter days, the turbine runs close to its maximum.

This device really changed my perspective on the world and made me re-evaluate what I want to do with my life.  The turbine is a great example of future energy production.  It decreases the amount of electricity that Harvard has to buy and is cost-effective in the long-run, so it makes economic sense.  It reduces greenhouse gases by taking the steam – which has to be produced by emissions-heavy technology – and using it to its fullest potential, so it makes environmental sense.  While we may not be able to shift to a zero-emission economy straight away, there are incredible opportunities to take what we already produce and use it more fully and efficiently while saving money at the same time.

After my trip to the Blackstone Steam Plant, I decided that I want to learn more about the energy sector and understand how it works, from top to bottom.  I may not be able to make technologies like lower-emissions natural gas boilers and co-generation turbines, but hopefully I can help connect the inventors and manufacturers of these technologies with users that want cost-effective, environmentally responsible energy production – places, for instance, like Harvard.