Princeton Hospital Points to Future of Energy Use

New medical center boasts its own power generation plant, promising reduced emissions and bills

Credit: NRG Thermal
If New Jersey is going to meet its growing energy needs, then locally produced distributed-generation power to nearby facilities will probably play a crucial role.

The future of what that might entail is rising along Route 1 in Plainsboro, under an ambitious project developed by NRG Thermal and the Princeton Healthcare System at its new hospital — the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, scheduled to open in 2012.

Alongside the gently arching, 630,000-square-foot facility will be a two-story building housing a state-of-the-art combined heat and power (CHP) plant, which will provide enough electricity to power the medical center and to heat and air-condition its 237 single-patient rooms.

The $34 million project will allow the hospital to cut its energy bill dramatically, reduce emissions and increase reliability, a crucial factor for medical care facilities. Beyond the electricity produced by a 4.6-megawatt gas turbine in the cogeneration plant, the facility will have three backup diesel generators as well as the ability to draw power from the PJM Interconnection power grid, if the need arises.

“The biggest advantage to us it gives us absolute reliability with three levels of protection,” said Pam Hersh, vice president of government and community affairs at Princeton Healthcare System. “There’s nothing that can wreak havoc more to a hospital than having no power.”

Scope and Sophistication

For NRG Thermal, the project is probably the most sophisticated CHP project it has undertaken. It provides the ability to tie together systems producing electricity, steam heating and chilled water for air conditioning, according to Bob Henry, senior vice president of NRG Energy, the parent of NRG Thermal, one of the largest providers of combined heat and power plants in the nation.

The Minneapolis-based company typically provides systems for heating or for cooling — or for both, as in the case of PNC Park, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Under the original plans for the hospital, the facility was seeking a heating and cooling system, but NRG convinced it to include turbine-producing electricity as well.

“We haven’t done it to this sophistication before,” said Henry, who described the developer screening process as a “beauty contest, which we won.”

With three systems capable of providing the electricity the facility will need, there is also the option of exporting power to the regional electric grid at times, or, importing electricity from the grid into the facility when power prices on the grid are dropping. “If we can reduce load, then we can shift some megawatts to the grid and make some bucks,” Henry said.

Efficiency a Key

CHP plants have the attraction of being much more efficient than convention power generating stations, which have an efficiency rating of about 35 percent, while CHP plants typically are 60 percent to 65 percent efficient, according to Gary Gustafson, director of engineering for NRG Thermal.

It is one of the reasons the current New Jersey Energy Master Plan envisions building up to 1,500 megawatts of new CHP plant generation by the year 2020. One megawatt is enough to power about 800 homes. The state had set aside $158 million to help build new CHP plants, but the Christie administration diverted that money to help balance the budget.

Still, NRG is eager to get involved not only in New Jersey market, but also around the country, according to Henry. It has even won a service mark to market the type of facility being constructed in Plainsboro as CHP+NRG, noted David Gaier, an NRG spokesman.

In Plainsboro, where as many as 50 to 60 people have been working on building the energy facility, NRG expects work on the three big chillers for cooling water and on the backup diesel generators to be done by January or February; the cogeneration plant could be finished in another four months.

NRG will operate the facility for the medical center with a crew of about 11, with coverage around the clock. The medical facility will have no energy bill but will imply pay NRG a monthly fee, which will vary depending on the amount of energy consumed.

Beyond the two-story energy plant, the hospital also plans to install solar panels above a parking garage; it may also add a station to power up electric vehicles.