Pete Kelly delivers: Clean-burning power plant starts at UAF


The turbines are spinning.

The biggest project in Fairbanks in years, which employed hundreds of workers in the making, and which will cut air particulates coming out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks by 45 percent, is nearly complete.

Today, workers are putting the new coal-fired, clean-air power plant through its paces before it’s considered “live” in a few weeks.

Sen. Pete Kelly was on hand for the ceremonial start-up and was asked to speak about it, as it’s been one of his key projects in the past few years for Greater Fairbanks. In his remarks, University President Jim Johnsen gave Kelly credit for its completion.

Clean air in Fairbanks is a huge concern. But the risk of the University of Alaska Fairbanks power plant failing in midwinter was unthinkable and would have meant the loss of the entire university, Kelly said. Programs would have spun off to other campuses and may have never returned. Enrollment and research funding would have sagged for years if the campus “broke” at -40, due to failure of the 54-year-old Atkinson heat and power plant.

“The power plant did go down in 1998. It did have a catastrophic failure and because of the heroics of some of the people on hand yesterday, the university kept from shutting down. There are still t-shirts around that read ‘Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?'” Kelly said. Back then, a pipe had burst in one of the original boilers and knocked out electricity, which nearly led to a campus-wide freeze-up.

“We could have lost the campus, and with that aging power plant, it was a looming risk to this entire community,” Kelly said.

Not only will particulates be reduced by 45 percent, the operating cost will also be reduced by between $4-5 million per year. And by some comparisons, this plant burns cleaner than natural gas.

But to Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks and his former staffer, Mindy L. O’Neall, the response was that it was a short-sighted and was simply hardly worth mentioning. Yet they found something to say about it on Facebook:



The $245 million combined heat and power plant was the top community priority for Fairbanks in 2014. The plant provides electricity and steam heat to 3 million square feet of university buildings on campus.

In 2013, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial board wrote  that the UAF power plant “is probably the single most important structure on the campus, as the university cannot operate without the heat and light generated from the plant.”

It became the top priority for the university, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and a top item for the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

In 2014, Sen. Pete Kelly, who was then the Senate Finance Co-Chair remarked, “If the plant goes down, it could be a significant problem. There will be a catastrophic failure so what’s the worst-case scenario? You have $1.4 billion worth of buildings, hundreds of millions worth of equipment, thousands of students, teachers and scientists. In the best-case scenario, you’re going to pay $20 (million) to $30 million a year for diesel.”

Along with Senate Finance Co-Chair Kevin Meyer, Kelly put together a financing package through a combination of capital appropriations, use of the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank, and revenue bonds to fund the $245 million replacement plant in the FY15 budget, even during a time when state funds were in short supply.

Kelly then made his case on the Senate floor, reminding his colleagues that it was not just a Fairbanks project, but impacted families from all over the state whose students attend school there.

The power plant is the largest construction project undertaken by the University of Alaska, and required:

  • 8,200 cubic yards of concrete
  • 981 tons of reinforcing steel
  • 4,050 tons of steel
  • 116 miles of wire and cable
  • 13.5 miles of piping
  • More than 1.1 million hours worked

In addition, the plant has the lowest particulate emissions ever guaranteed by a coal-fired plant manufacturer.

The use of locally sourced Usibelli coal while reducing the University’s emissions by 45 percent was something worth celebrating yesterday.

Sen. Pete Kelly, Perri Kelly, and Sen. Kevin Meyer take a tour of the new clean-burning power plant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on Wednesday after the ceremonial start of the plant.

Celebrate they did, with the ceremonial “throwing of the switch,” for the power plant.

“It’s an environmental leap forward for clean air in Fairbanks,” Kelly said. “We are pounding a stake deep into the ground to keep this campus right here where it belongs.”

Rep. Kawasaki did not attend the celebration, but did give a Facebook “thumbs up” to his former staffer’s note that the whole thing cost too much, the state is broke, and that natural gas would have been better.


  1. Oh, the irony of the UAF/College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences choosing to power its new plant with coal while leading studies on off kilter ocean chemistry caused in great part by … coal!

    It’s all so 1800’s …

  2. Sometimes the options one is left with are not ideal. This is what I recall: Four years ago Brian Rogers, UAF chancellor and former chair of House Finance, spoke to a group I was in. I asked Rogers, “What will the University do when the power plant breaks down at minus 30?” “Burn the books!”, he replied tongue-in-cheek. Four years ago Rogers, long time Democrat, supported Kelly’s reelection. He knew what the options were, how bad the situation was and how important Kelly was to a timely solution.

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