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Youngstown Thermal's business runs hot and cold



Published: Sun, January 29, 2012 @ 12:01 a.m.

By PETER H. MILLIKEN

milliken@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Increased use of district steam heating and cooling in the city’s central business district could give Youngstown a major economic and environmental boost, according to the head of a district heating and cooling company.

“I’m saving downtown Youngstown $5 million per year” by delivering

efficient, low-cost heating and cooling, said Carl Avers, chief executive officer of Youngstown Thermal, the city’s sole district steam heating and cooling supplier.

The savings are compared to what would be spent if all central city buildings used their own natural-gas-fired boilers and electric chillers, said Jim Mullen, Youngstown Thermal general manager.

The money a company saves in heating and cooling costs can be invested in new equipment or creation of jobs in that company, Avers explained.

In district energy systems, such as that of Youngstown Thermal, a central plant produces hot water, steam or chilled water, which is circulated through pipes to heat or cool customers’ buildings.

In these systems, participating buildings need not have their own boilers, chillers or cooling towers.

“If all of the buildings in [central] Youngstown join the district heating and district cooling system, we will put $32 million of economic benefit into the downtown area per year,” Avers said. “It’s an economic stimulus.”

The $32 million estimate also assumes waste heat from the V&M Star plant can be used to assist in the process.

A V&M spokesman, however, said the company, which makes steel pipe, would have no comment on the waste energy utilization proposal.

The use of district heating means fewer smokestacks in use, resulting in less air pollution, Avers said.

District heating and cooling are both growing nationally at 11 percent annually, Avers said. “The thermal efficiency of district heating and cooling is 80 percent,” Avers said.

“People are trying to save money. They’re trying to get a greener alternative,” Avers explained, noting that there are 6,000 district heating systems in the United States.

“Economies of scale” and the desire for energy efficiency drive the demand for district heating at universities that own many buildings, such as Youngstown State University, Avers said.

“Economies of scale can be maximized and realized when a community gathers around district steam and chilled-water plants,” said Ralph Morrone, YSU facilities engineer.

Economy of scale refers to the concept that the more of an item or service that is produced, the cheaper its unit cost.

The university gets 92 percent of its campus-wide heat from Youngstown Thermal steam and pays the company $2.25 million to

$2.5 million annually for steam heating.

Morrone said it would be impossible to calculate how much money the university saves annually by using steam from Youngstown Thermal without performing an in-depth engineering study concerning costs of new-boiler installation, operators, piping and redesign.

Although district energy has its strong supporters, the decision on what type of heating and cooling works best is a complex one, which is based on an energy evaluation for each building and on the cost of various fuel alternatives, said David Kosec, an engineer and project manager for the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp.

“Any building owner is going to be interested in price and reliability,” said Kosec, whose agency develops and manages downtown Youngstown office buildings.

The analysis is further complicated by fuel-price fluctuations, with natural-gas prices having fluctuated wildly in the last few years and recently reaching rock-bottom, he noted.

The George V. Voinovich Government Center, the state office building at 242 W. Federal St., and the adjacent Mahoning County Children Services Board building, both CIC developed, opened in 1999 and 2005, respectively, both as well-insulated buildings with reliable, high-

efficiency, all-electric rooftop heating and cooling units, he noted.

When those buildings were designed, studies of heating and cooling alternatives showed Youngstown Thermal steam was costlier than the systems that were chosen for those buildings, Kosec said.

However, Kosec said the owner of an old building who is faced with the prospect of replacing a boiler may find Youngstown Thermal’s steam an attractive proposition. “You do away with the boiler; you bring in their steam,” he said.

Youngstown Thermal’s steam production and distribution system is 116 years old. Youngstown Thermal acquired it in 1980 from Ohio Edison and spent $7 million to modernize and improve it during the 1980s.

Youngstown Thermal’s steam-producing plant at 205 North Ave. produces steam to support the company’s heating and air conditioning services. The company heats 75 buildings in and near downtown and air-conditions four downtown buildings.

The plant originally generated electricity to operate trolleys and later became an OE electric power plant that produced steam for heating as a byproduct of electric generation. Today, the plant produces steam but not electricity.

“The economics are overpowering,” Avers said. The average cost per thousand pounds of steam to heat a building that uses its own natural-gas boiler is about $63, but it’s only $18 to heat the same building with district steam from a plant, such as that of Youngstown Thermal, he added.

Mullen said those figures apply regardless of building size.

James Cossler, chief executive officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator, 241 W. Federal St., which gets both heating and air conditioning from Youngstown Thermal, said the service is extremely reliable and relieves the incubator of the burden of having to buy, install, operate and maintain heating and air-conditioning systems within its own building.

“It’s top-notch service. We’ve never had any issues of reliability or supply with them at all. It’s a very cost-effective service,” Cossler said of Youngstown Thermal.

“When you have district heating and cooling, you eliminate the need for premises equipment. You don’t have a boiler that will fail. ... You don’t have rooftop air-conditioning units that could fail,” Cossler explained.

“As long as the chilled water reaches the building, we’re cool, and as long as the steam reaches the building, we’re warm,” Cossler said of district heating and cooling.

Cossler said the few brief Youngstown Thermal service interruptions have been for planned and pre-

announced equipment maintenance at convenient times of low service demand.

“They buy reliability from us,” Avers said of his company’s customers.

Avers said Youngstown Thermal is now making a multimillion-dollar investment as it seeks to expand its air-conditioning business beyond its downtown central chiller plant at 230 W. Boardman St., which serves the incubator, the DeYor Performing Arts Center, Home Savings & Loan and the Draught House and operates at about half of its capacity.

Avers said the company is ready to install and maintain other such chiller plants to serve additional customers and can have such units operational before summer arrives this year.

Youngstown Thermal’s district cooling costs about half as much as operating a cooling system in each building, he said.

“We don’t have to go out and build a boiler plant because we have it there for the heating season,” Avers explained.

Two factors should help in the growth of district air conditioning, Avers said.

The first is that utilities charge their highest prices for the electricity needed for electric chillers during the peak periods of summer electric demand, far exceeding the cost of district steam to support summer air conditioning.

The second is escalating prices due to dwindling supplies of Freon products used as air conditioning refrigerants, whose manufacture has been banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because they destroy the earth’s ozone layer.

The salt water used as a refrigerant in Youngstown Thermal’s Boardman Street cooling plant is environmentally “benign compared to the traditional way of chilling” with Freons, Avers said.

If it’s economically feasible, YSU will buy Youngstown Thermal steam to produce chilled water in order to reduce the university’s electric use on hot summer days, Morrone said.

“Our customers are very sophisticated, and they can either do a deal with us or put in their own system, so there’s competition in the marketplace for us,” Avers said.


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