Think you’ve got a killer power bill?

The University of Central Florida pays more than $1 million a month for about as much electricity as 10,000 homes use.

That whopping expense is one reason UCF is doing what no other school in the state has done: building its own power plant. The unit will supply one-third of UCF’s electricity.

“We’re hoping it will not only save the university millions of dollars a year on its utilities but also reduce greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Dave Norvell, UCF’s director of sustainability and energy management.

A monstrous engine and generator arrived from Japan last week, wrapped in plastic, weighing a quarter-million pounds, and riding an 80-wheel trailer. It took care and patience to inch the behemoth onto temporary rails and into a newly constructed building specially designed to supress the giant machine’s sound when it’s operating.

It will take UCF the rest of this year to connect the wiring, fuel, cooling lines and controls. But by January, the unit should be generating electricity and producing engine and exhaust heat that will be captured and used to help run the campus’ air-conditioning systems.

The business numbers look favorable: One-third of UCF’s electricity now costs about $360,000 a month, but the new plant should be able to produce that much power for about half that price.

At that rate, UCF figures its investment of $12 million — half for the equipment and half for the special building — should be paid off in about six years.

UCF — the nation’s second-biggest university, based on enrollment — opted not to build an even larger plant that could have supplied all of the school’s electricity. School administrators decided to remain a Progress Energy customer and stay connected to the utility’s grid. That gives the school a chance to assess the new plant’s performance and to consider other options for generating more power, such as a major solar-energy plant.

Barry Moline, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, said major manufacturers occasionally install large power plants to supplement or replace the local electric utility. But UCF’s endeavor, if successful, could start a trend among large schools, he said.

“Universities are credible organizations, and they hang around for a long time,” Moline said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.”

The UCF plant’s Mitsubishi motor resembles those that power train locomotives or ships.

But instead of consuming diesel fuel, as those other motors do, the UCF plant will run on natural gas, an energy source that utilities across the nation are turning to as clean and affordable.

Because a significant portion of Progress Energy’s electricity comes from plants that burn coal, which contributes relatively more climate-warming carbon to the atmosphere, the amount of pollution for which UCF is responsible will shrink when its new plant comes online.

A peculiarity of the UCF power-plant motor is that it will attain maximum efficiency by running much more slowly — at only 700 revolutions per minute — than typical, diesel-powered generators.

But such a slow speed will also produce a low-frequency noise requiring extra measures to dampen.

“It will be like a tuba at 120 decibels,” Norvell said of the noise expected inside the plant, which is nestled within the campus core and not far from dormitories and science buildings.

Clamping down on the machine’s vibrations and noise will require a very hefty building, with walls of solid concrete and a foundation 6 feet thick. As a final measure, an exterior wall of bricks will be laid in the coming months.

“The trick to stopping that noise is mass,” Norvell said.

The plant is expected to run round the clock to produce 45 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year — enough energy for 3,100 homes.

Purchased from Progress Energy, that much electricity would cost $4.3 million.

Generated at the new plant, it will cost $2.1 million.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, Aug. 28, 2011, UCF Building Its Own Power Plant to Cut Millions In Electricity Costs, by Kevin Spear, staff writer. Published: Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.