In the control room, the power plant’s nerve center, stationary engineer Frank Trout (seated) and Tony Mitchner, the skilled trades supervisor for power plant operations, monitor plant operations, watching for equipment alarms and ensuring electrical and steam production matches campus demand. They adjust settings for the plant’s boilers, generators and other equipment to fine tune operations for maximum efficiency as well as maintain steam and electricity supply for the campus.
MSU can function as its own independent electrical grid, but plant operators sometimes choose to sell electricity to the wider grid during peak demand periods or buy it when prices are favorable. These decisions promote energy and cost efficiency and advance the university’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I enjoy operating a steam plant because it’s something that’s interesting to me. But to me, the best part of my job is seeing the different personalities of all the crew that works with me and seeing how they interact with each other and pull together to accomplish what they do every day,” says Mitchner. “It’s definitely a more stressful job when you’re talking about everybody working a 12-hour shift for 24/7 coverage, but it amazes me how these individuals pull together to power a 50,000-plus person campus.”
Mitchner recently joined the Power and Water Department after serving in the U.S. Navy for 21 years, including managing the steam boiler systems on nuclear aircraft carriers. A number of power plant employees have backgrounds in the Navy, where they gained experience operating and maintaining large steam boilers used for ship power and propulsion.
Power plant mechanic Terri Geiger uses a water hose with a brush on the end to clean out the tubes of a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger is used to cool the water that runs through bearings in pumps and turbines at the power plant.
“The power plant is so big,” says Geiger, who has worked at the plant for 22 years. “I have fellow employees who have been here for 30 or 40 years and still learn something new because it’s something different that you’re working on. You don’t have the same thing every day. You are constantly doing something and learning something new.”
The plant’s feedwater pumps supply high-pressure, highly purified water to seven-story-tall boilers that convert it into high-pressure steam. When the plant entered service in 1965, it had only two boilers, which are reaching the end of their useful life.
Next year, after the plant’s new medium-pressure boiler enters service, IPF staff will review whether one or more of the oldest boilers should be retired. The boiler and three new internal-combustion electrical-generating engines added this year will allow separate steam and electricity production, leading to increased flexibility and an increase in overall plant energy-efficiency, helping MSU achieve its ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
Power plant technicians Carl Kobb (right) and Levi Dysinger review online equipment documentation while working to calibrate a new steam flow transmitter — the blue disassembled device on the table — in a small work room off the main plant floor.
“I enjoy knowing how things work from start to finish,” says Dysinger, who has been with MSU for 13 years.
The transmitter they are working on will replace an obsolete model near the Regional Chilled Water Plant on Service Road.
Turbine generator 5 takes steam energy produced by the boilers at 900 pounds-per-square-inch and converts it into mechanical — in this case rotational — energy. This rotational energy is then fed into the generator that produces electricity used to power campus. Some components have an insulating cover to reduce the steam’s heat loss, promoting energy efficiency.
Inside the water treatment plant, four large blue vessels work to filter minerals from campus water thanks to largely automated technology that monitors the system and alerts human operators to issues if they arise. The plant started supplying water to the academic and residential portion of the East Lansing campus in 2020 to improve campus water’s taste and appearance by removing naturally occurring iron and other minerals in the groundwater. Plant staff also treats the water with chlorine to disinfect it, fluoride to promote strong teeth and bones and phosphate to protect pipes against corrosion.
J.J. Evens, a water works operator at the water treatment plant for the past three years, fills test bottles with treated water to ensure it has adequate levels of phosphate, which protects water pipes and mains against corrosion, and that minerals including iron and manganese have been removed. He will place the bottles in the spectrometer in front of him to evaluate their mineral levels.
“Everyone I work with takes pride in the responsibility of producing safe, clean drinking water,” says Evens, who, along with his co-workers, regularly tests campus water to ensure it is safe and healthy to drink and that it meets all state and federal guidelines.
“The water plant dramatically pushes us toward the future,” he adds. “The old way of doing things on campus — there was no filtration, no iron removal. Now this plant pretty much runs itself. The plant fluctuates its flow based on tower water level and doses all the treatment chemicals based on how much flow is going through the water plant building. It is light years beyond what the old reservoir was.”
In a chemical storage and mixing room, water treatment plant manager Tom Silsby explains how chemicals stored in nearby rooms are mixed to form a gritty slurry that is used to draw iron, manganese and other minerals out of the raw water supplied by campus wells. The purpose-built rooms are designed to contain any spills and automatic monitors will sound alarms if they detect a malfunction. Once properly mixed, the chemicals are filtered out, and the treated water is pumped to campus. The water plant also chlorinates the water and adds phosphates for corrosion control.
“It can be an intimidating job,” says Silsby. “You are providing potable, treatable, drinking water to everybody on campus, so that could be 50-to-80,000 people depending on the day, and half of our water is sent across the street to make steam to power campus electricity. It’s an important job.”
Before coming to MSU two years ago, Silsby managed the city of Mason’s water treatment plant for 15 years, which is very similar to the university’s plant.
The T.B. Simon Power Plant is located on Service Road near Farm Lane next to the university’s water treatment plant and tower. The brick power plant has been added on to over the years to increase steam and electrical generation.
The plant is named after Ted Simon. After receiving a degree from MSU in civil engineering in 1942, Simon worked for General Motors for four years before returning to MSU where he worked on laying out campus water, sewer and electrical systems as well as future road plans. Simon developed a book of standards providing guidelines to outside consultants about the type of building components MSU would accept as standard and developed co-generational power plants to control heat and electrical waste on the campus.