Local power plant juices medical area

October 14, 2011
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LONGWOOD MEDICAL AREA—The weather was on Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP) employees’ minds during a Gazette visit to the power plant at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Francis Street Oct. 6.

“It’s getting chilly out,” workers in hard hats said, greeting each other in the reception area and as they got on the elevator.

The fact that the air noticeably brisker that morning than it has been in recent weeks was big news at the power plant, MATEP Accounts Manager Patricia Twomey told the Gazette. The thermometer dip means demand for steam is about to start climbing and demand for chilled water shrinking among MATEP’s clients—local medical institutions.

Donning a hardhat, protective glasses and earplugs, this reporter briefly toured the power plant’s operating floor. Towering machines—most painted a striking shade of blue and many sporting an impressive array of multicolor control panels and gauges—churned an whirred. They were carrying out MATEP’s regular business of heating, cooling and—via four natural gas turbines—providing energy for most of the area’s medical institutions.

During peak demand for its various services, MATEP has the capacity to send 250 million pounds of steam; 18.7 million ton-hours of chilled water; and 27 million kilowatt-hours of electricity through pipes running under the streets. Ton-hour and kilowatt-hour are standard measurements for forms of energy that can be stored for future distribution.

MATEP fuels over 11 million square feet of the LMA belonging to Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Children’s Hospital Boston; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; the Joslin Diabetes Center; Harvard Medical School; and the Harvard School of Public Health.

“It means our customers can focus on their core business and don’t have to commit space for equipment like this,” Richard Kessel, CEO of MATEP, told the Gazette.

Having a professional institution focused on energy production nestled in among the area’s world-class medical centers also means MATEP can focus on energy efficiency, Kessel said. MATEP’s “greenness” comes from using the heat generated by the gas turbines to generate its steam, and using some of the steam it generated to run two of its turbines and its cooling system.

That “trigeneration” system means it is saving 40,207 metric tons of carbon, by the Environmental Protection Agency’s count, MATEP Communications Consultant Jim Cabot said. “That is equivalent to 26,859 cars,” he said.

Kessel said that MATEP is constantly looking to upgrade its environmental efficiency. He said that wind turbines are likely out of the question because “helicopters are constantly landing and it’s not windy enough.” But, he said, MATEP is keeping a close eye on cost of solar energy systems. “The price is starting to come down and be more attractive,” he said. “In the future…it could be beneficial.”

Adopting new technologies and “expanding with our customers” are two of MATEP’s main goals, especially since the power plant was purchased last year from NSTAR by a joint venture of Morgan Stanley Infrastructure and Veolia Energy North America, Kessel said. Veolia, which runs other similar plants in the Boston area, manages MATEP and has a 10 percent stake in the plant.

“In this location right now we have space for a certain amount of expansion. A remote, connected facility is also a possibility,” Kessel said. MATEP already operated at least one such facility, a satellite water chilling plant on the Harvard Medical School campus.

Kessel said he does not have any estimate right now for how much demand is likely to increase.

MATEP’s customers also rely on the regional electricity grid for some of their power, so MATEP does not know how much energy they currently use overall, he said. And future energy consumption trends could be affected by a number of factors, including the health of the economy and medical institutions’ changing priorities as health care reforms are enacted.

For now, though, MATEP will just keep chugging along. System redundancies—including back-up diesel generators if the natural gas turbines cannot meet demand—keep them running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Kessel said.

Prior to its purchase by Morgan Stanley, NSTAR bought the plant from Harvard University in 1998. According to MATEP’s website, the facility’s precursor was founded by Harvard in 1906 as a steam and electricity plant, and later converted to a heating and cooling plant when electricity became commercially available. Electricity was reintegrated into the mix in 1980 when Harvard and other local institutional partners teamed up to build MATEP. The current facility was opened in 1986.

MATEP was born out of “1970s oil prices,” Kessel said. The institutions recognized “they needed to drive their destiny more than they had in the past. The world gave them a signal, and they addressed it.”

 

Correction: The print and online versions of this story previously referred to MATEP’s gas turbines as liquid natural gas turbines. They are actually natural gas turbines.

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