Western Carolina University steam plant

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (left) and Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli Brown tour the WCU steam plant on Oct. 3, 2019. The aging plant is in danger of failing, and the university is awaiting state funding to replace it.

I’m accustomed to getting hyperbolic emails from politicians. Bombast and exaggeration are their default modes, after all. After a lot of years in the news biz, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at filtering out the noise.

That said, an email last week from N.C. Speaker Tim Moore breached my bluster barricade. What did it was this headline that started out: “‘Complete Campus Shutdown’ a Prospect at WCU.”

Some backstory: Lots of UNC System schools have big-dollar projects in limbo at the moment, and Moore is touring the state to see where some of this money might end up (and to remind folks that these projects are in limbo because of the governor's veto; Moore is a politician, after all.) Moore was in Greensboro in August (I covered that visit here), and he was at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee last week.

These projects are part of the state budget plan approved by the General Assembly (controlled by the GOP) but vetoed by the governor (a Democrat). If the budget stalemate ever ends, UNCG will get $10 million toward an $84 million library overhaul, and N.C. A&T will get $18.5 million to renovate one of its agriculture research buildings. Eleven of the 16 state universities have a big capital project pending. (The whole list is here starting on page 327.) There are a lot of crossed fingers in the C-suites (C for chancellor) across the UNC System.

Perhaps the most crossed fingers can be found at Western, which is in line for the second of two $16.5 million installments to replace its aging — WCU calls it “dilapidated” — steam plant. A steam plant isn’t as sexy as, say, a new library or a new student center. But a steam plant might be the second-most important piece of campus infrastructure, tied with the electrical and water systems and trailing only the high-tech network that powers computing, communications, data services and, above all, the student Wi-Fi.

That’s why it’s not hyperbole to say that Western, if a few things break in the wrong direction, could face a complete campus shutdown when winter rolls through.

Western’s steam plant was built in the late 1920s — its smokestack is a campus landmark — and uses natural gas to provide most of the heat and hot water to the Cullowhee campus of nearly 12,200 students. The plant has been updated over the years, but several major parts date back to the 1950s and 1960s. (Those parts, for you steam plant nerds, are the generator, the de-aeration tank, the condensate tank and the water feed pump system.)

The plant has three permanent boilers and three temporary boilers installed three years ago after a 65-year-old boiler failed. The temporary boilers have a lifespan of about 10 years and run at about 80 percent efficiency, WCU spokesman Bill Studenc told me in an email this week. The old boilers, meanwhile, are about 50 percent efficient. 

When the plant is running at full steam (literally) in the winter, WCU says the building shakes so badly that it knocks the plaster off the walls. As Western’s maintenance director put it in that same story published by the university, working at the steam plant involves “90 percent watching and listening, and 10 percent sheer terror.” Late WCU chancellor David Belcher in 2018 called the facility the "steam museum."

So how dire is it? Pretty dire, according to Studenc. Here is a portion of his email to me earlier this week:

“The short answer is, yes, the steam plant is really in very poor condition. In fact, the entire steam plant (not just the boilers) is way beyond its life expectancy. We are on borrowed time. The only reason that it continues to operate is because of the amazing work of the facilities crew members who operate the plant. But the boilers, the generator, the de-aeration tank, and the water feed pump system are all pieces of equipment subject to failure. Even once we get the remaining funding, it will still require a few years to construct a new plant.

“We do have contingencies and some redundancies in place to reduce the likelihood of a ‘complete campus shutdown,’” but it remains a very real possibility as a worst case scenario.”

Western’s trustees in September approved plans for the design of the new power plant, which will keep the old smokestack.

The next steps in the process, according to the dry but hopeful prose of a university news release:

"The funding is included in a budget that has been approved by the General Assembly but was vetoed June 28 by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper. WCU officials say they are optimistic the impasse will be resolved and steam plant funding will be released to the university. …

"With design now approved by the board, the university will await the remaining allocation from the state before beginning actual construction."

In the meantime, cross your fingers for a mild winter out west.

P.S.: To be completely clear here, the WCU and the other UNC System projects don't seem to be part of the Democratic/Republican divide over the budget. State lawmakers are stuck on two main issues: Medicaid expansion and teacher pay.

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