Cornell to begin next phase of innovative cooling project

Cornell is moving to the next phase of an innovative plan to cool campus equipment and buildings using cold water from Cayuga Lake as a natural refrigerant, now that studies have shown the concept is environmentally and economically feasible.

The plan, called lake source cooling, would use cold water from the bottom of Cayuga Lake to chill water from the campus, which then would be used for air conditioning and equipment cooling in Cornell buildings.

The Cornell administration and Board of Trustees agreed that Cornell engineers should develop more specific engineering and design plans and begin applying for regulatory permits for the $50 million project -- a process that could take 18 months. If the studies during the permitting process show the project is feasible, Cornell could move to the construction phase within two years.

But first, Cornell must prepare an environmental impact statement as part of the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) Act. "This is a major step for Cornell and Ithaca," said Lanny Joyce, senior mechanical engineer and project manager. "Over the next 18 months, we will be working closely with community groups and city, town, state and federal agencies on an environmental impact statement that will scrutinize every aspect of lake source cooling." In addition, specific engineering plans and designs for the system -- including the underwater intake, pipelines from the lake to the shore and up to the campus, and a heat-exchanger facility and pumping station -- have to be made.

Lake source cooling largely would replace conventional technology, which uses electricity to power big chillers that use chemical refrigerants to cool the recirculated water that is distributed across campus. These refrigerants, also known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), no longer can be manufactured in the United States. Cornell's chillers would have to be replaced or some other cooling method would have to be found.

The system is environmentally beneficial because it does not use CFCs and uses one-fifth the energy of conventional technology -- over the long-term, paying for itself in electricity and equipment savings. The system would draw water from the bottom of Cayuga Lake, about 200 feet down where the temperature is about 40 degrees year-round. That water would pass through a heat exchanger on the shore, naturally cooling recirculated water piped down East Hill from the campus. The lake water would be returned to the lake without having come in contact with the campus recirculating water.

Cornell has an agreement to purchase property at 1000 East Shore Drive, adjacent to the Cayuga Heights Waste Water Treatment Plant in an industrial area, for a 3,000-square- foot pumping station at the shore and a 15,000-square-foot heat-exchanger facility in what is now a gravel parking area, if the project goes forward.

Environmental studies of the lake by Stearns & Wheler, an environmental engineering firm, showed that no aspect of lake source cooling would harm Cayuga Lake or its ecosystems. Its report, "Stearns & Wheler Interim Report, Results of the 1995 Investigation," is on file in the Tompkins County Public Library and in the Engineering Library in Carpenter Hall.

A 1994 report identified two concerns that Cornell engineers believe can be addressed: mysids, tiny shrimp, that inadvertently could be swept up in the lake source cooling intake flow; and zebra and quagga mussels that could clog the pipes. The new updated report states that the intake system can be engineered to discourage mysids from venturing too close. And self-contained mechanical cleansing systems can clear the pipelines of the mussels, and other control methods can be used if extreme concentrations occur.

"We have long seen lake source cooling as a creative concept, where technology, concern for the environment and economic reality combine for the benefit of all involved -- a true 'win-win' situation," said Harold D. Craft, Cornell's vice president for facilities and campus services. "Nevertheless, the concept still needs to be examined further and explored thoroughly by the Cornell and Ithaca communities." Members of the community have identified many secondary benefits. The city of Ithaca Board of Public Works and the Ithaca school board see this as an opportunity to improve city utility lines and streets and to use lake source cooling to air-condition Ithaca High School. Cornell engineers are eager to talk with anyone who may have ideas on how others may benefit from the system. They have been meeting with community, civic and governmental groups over the past 20 months.

A newsletter updating the community is being mailed this week, and Cornell continues to meet with community leaders and the public for input as the project progresses. "The SEQR process provides for extensive public review and comment," said Henry Doney, Cornell's director of utilities. "We are eager to hear more extensive comments from the public and from civic groups. We think it's an idea that will work, but the SEQR process will help us determine that." The SEQR process will involve determining a lead agency, determining the scope of the project and then drafting an environmental impact statement. Each agency will then make findings and issue the required environmental permits if the agency finds that appropriate.

The environmental impact statement will provide detailed information to various agencies but also will give Cornell the data on which to decide whether to proceed with the project -- one so innovative that it has not been done in this country.

"This is a unique opportunity to convert a major campus utility system from one based on fossil fuel to one based on a sustainable, renewable resource," said Robert R. Bland, Cornell's environmental engineer. "The scientific evaluation and public review during the SEQR process will assure that there will be no unacceptable negative impacts on Cayuga Lake and the community."

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