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A Statement of Power at Harvard

By District Energy posted 12-30-2021 11:40


Wall Street Journal


Was Harvard happy about building a new gas-burning power plant? Would a vegan commune be happy about building an abattoir? But rather than playing down Harvard’s new District Energy Facility, its architects—Leers Weinzapfel Associates—have made it flashy, even exuberant. It does not apologize for burning fossil fuel but flaunts it with a sleek silvery pavilion wrapped in tapered fins. It is the architectural equivalent of an old political adage: If you can’t hide a weakness, hang a red flag on it.

The DEF, as it is called, is a cogeneration plant providing electricity and heat to Harvard’s new Allston campus. This is the 358-acre tract to the south of the Charles River, where a furious building campaign is now under way, with major new facilities for Harvard’s business and engineering schools, and other university operations. Over the next decade nearly two million square feet of construction and renovation is to take place, and all of it will be served by the DEF.

A vanishing landmark of America’s older cities was the municipal power plant, that mighty red-brick behemoth whose coal-fired boilers turned out steam heat and hot water. A district energy plant is a very different animal. With its sophisticated network of interlocking technologies, it can respond instantly to shifts in the demand for electricity. During off-peak hours, it can store up cheap energy by chilling water in an immense 1.3 million gallon tank. At the same time, the excess heat thrown off by the chilling process is captured and used for heating buildings. The increase in energy efficiency is enormous.

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