The Daily Gamecock

$19 million biomass energy facility breaks again

Clean energy facility now three years behind schedule

USC’s $19 million biomass energy facility has broken down, again.

The facility, which is located on the corner of Whaley and Main streets, is supposed to burn wood chips and hog bark to produce steam to heat USC’s buildings and water. Part of the Innovista project, the facility was billed as an environmentally friendly way for the university to save over $2 million per year, and it is the first of its kind in the nation.

But the facility is now three years behind schedule due to a string of issues.

“It has a lot of bumps that we hit every time we get it up and running,” Tom Quasney, USC’s associate vice president of facilities, said to the board of trustees two weeks ago.

This month’s bump was a shutdown caused by clogged water filters and three small leaks in a steam drum. This came after the plant’s most successful run of 24 days, during which the facility wasn’t run at full output for fear that a boiler would fail for a second time.

Quasney, to whom all questions were referred, said he expected the facility to restart soon and that Johnson Controls, the company responsible for the facility’s operation, would cover all repairs. Also, USC has a contract for the next decade that guarantees it savings of $2.1 million annually, whether the plant operates or not.

The plant also experienced a “catastrophic failure” in April when a boiler melted. The facility’s boilers are where gases from the burning fuel boil water into steam. Quasney said at the board of trustees meeting that USC had been renting a boiler for the past three winters.

In April of 2009, a bent pipe shut down the facility for two months. In February of 2008, problems with steam distribution shut it down for almost a year.

“Because the plant is a prototype, the problems it has experienced are not unusual,” Quasney said. “Backup systems are being installed for critical equipment. Johnson Controls is committed to constructing a safe and reliable plant, and once we clear these hurdles, we anticipate that the biomass plant will operate efficiently and be a clean, cost-effective way to heat the campus.”