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‘A physical place of transition’: Inside Princeton’s natural gas plant

By District Energy posted 02-21-2023 22:16


The Daily Princetonian


On a chilly day, as students meander down Elm Drive heading south to the new colleges for a meal, or perhaps rushing to class, they might be consumed in conversation or music. But if any of the passersby happened to look up, they might notice a plume of water vapor billowing from a nearby pipe attached to a squat, rectangular building.

This structure is Princeton’s cogeneration plant, and through the combustion of natural gas, it has been heating, cooling, and providing electricity to Princeton’s campus since 1996. The campus is in a moment of energy transition as the University builds a geo-exchange system that will become the primary energy system over the course of the next decade. On a tour of the cogeneration plant, The Daily Princetonian saw the energy transition process first-hand and learned about the day-to-day life of the operators who have been working to power the University’s buildings for years.

In the context of natural gas, combustion refers to the burning of natural gas to produce heat, as well as various chemical byproducts. The cogeneration plant uses this reaction to generate heat and electricity simultaneously. The plant can take credit for the refuge in warm classrooms or residential colleges that students are guaranteed on a chilly day. 

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Tom Nyquist, Executive Director of Facilities Engineering and Campus Energy, explained how geo-exchange will improve upon the existing cogeneration system. In the summer, as the cogeneration plant provides air conditioning to campus by sending cold water to buildings, that water picks up heat from the atmosphere as it returns to the plant. “We have to get rid of the heat. Traditionally, we just blow it into the atmosphere,” said Nyquist. 

The geo-exchange system will take that excess heat and press it into the ground through a heat exchanger, which will warm up the bedrock beneath campus. In the winter, the system will harvest the stored energy and send it back in order to heat campus buildings. “It’s seasonal storage,” Nyquist explained. “We’re recycling the heat from summer into winter.”

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