Veolia Energy to improve Grand Rapids steam system

July 11, 2009
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(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of stories examining the plans for Veolia Energy in Grand Rapids.)

When Veolia Energy Grand Rapids took over the District Heating and Cooling Operation from Kent County late last year, company Vice President and General Manager Keith Oldewurtel said his firm would make the business more efficient and more sustainable.

The company appears to be keeping its promise.

Veolia Energy GR has hired Progressive AE to design and install a new condensing heat exchanger, a sophisticated piece of technology known as a condensing economizer that will reduce the volume of fuel the operation uses by at least 5 percent, lower the per-pound cost to produce steam, and decrease the facility’s overall carbon footprint by an amount roughly equivalent to the carbon-dioxide emissions of 1,000 vehicles.

Oldewurtel said that with the current steam operation, the exhaust from a boiler — which is warm, moist air — goes out a smokestack. He sees that air as being a wasted heat source the exchanger could use.

“The economizer is actually like a radiator that’s installed in that stack, and you run it through this new stack. But that heat exchanger will sit in that stack, and all of the water that we send to the boiler to produce the steam now will be preheated using that waste heat,” he explained.

“So basically what we’re doing is, we’re recovering what is going out the stack now. We’re using it to preheat the water that goes into the boiler, which means we burn less gas to produce the same amount of steam. This is a condensing economizer, so not only will we recover the heat but we will recover a big part of the moisture that goes out,” he said.

The upgrade means competitive steam rates for the 125 downtown customers that heat and cool their buildings through the DHCO, which is located at 156 W. Fulton St.

“We are dedicated to identifying and implementing improvements to our system that will benefit the community of Grand Rapids,” said Oldewurtel.

The new heat exchanger is expected to be installed in November, just in time for the heating season. Progressive AE will use local subcontractors for the project. Williams & Works, also a Grand Rapids engineering firm, is Veolia Energy’s general consultant.

“We understand the importance of this project and share Veolia Energy’s commitment to ensuring the long-term viability of this system, which is a vital resource for more than 125 customers in downtown Grand Rapids,” said Bradley Thomas, president and CEO of Progressive AE.

Veolia Energy GR also plans to re-insulate the pipes in manholes to cut heat loss and reduce leaks, and replace a current low-pressure distribution system that accounts for about a quarter of the facility’s total distribution with a newer high-pressure one over the next three years.

“In addition to improving the system’s overall efficiency, these upgrades demonstrate our dedication to spurring economic development by making the system more sustainable and delivering low costs to our customers in the process,” said Oldewurtel.

“We’re delivering these projects locally. We’re doing design-and-build, and Progressive is the contractor. I’ve got Williams & Works as my on-call general-engineering consultant. I know Progressive is using all local subcontractors. We’re investing that money and it’s being invested locally, to the extent possible,” he added.

Veolia Energy GR is a division of Veolia Energy North America, the leading owner and operator of district energy networks in the United States. Based in Boston, Veolia Energy NA owns and operates 22 plants in 11 cities and is a subsidiary of Veolia Environnement, a leading environmental services company headquartered in Paris.

“We’ve been doing a lot of repairs. People have probably seen us out shutting off a lot of streets and shutting down lanes of traffic, but we’re actually doing good things. We’re going in and replacing pipe, doing permanent repairs and taking care of some of the nagging leaks that have been out there,” said Oldewurtel.

“We’ve also been doing some meter change-outs on some of the older meters that are in the system, replacing those with some newer technology. We’ve done a lot of stuff in the plant with repairing and replacing equipment.”

Oldewurtel said the company will soon be asking for proposals to reinsulate the piping in the manholes and to replace the controls on two of the plant’s main boilers.

“There was a commitment (from Veolia) that there was going to be an investment made to improve the operation. And I think today we’re very fortunate that when everyone is tightening up on capital, Veolia has committed to and we’re moving forward on these projects,” he said.

Veolia Energy GR bought the DHCO from the county for $2.4 million. The sale closed early last December.

“In just six months since it purchased the county’s steam system, Veolia Energy has made significant efficiency upgrades that have helped Grand Rapids become a more sustainable community while investing in local businesses and workers,” said Mayor George Heartwell.

Next week: More investments Veolia plans to make in the DHCO system.

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