Harvard's Unknown Medical Power Plant

Some Question University's Role In Providing Electricity for Hospitals

Its most ferocious critics call it Harvard's half-billion dollar mistake, Milder types ask whether Harvard should be in the energy business. Some argue it is necessary, sensible and will pay for itself in time.

The Medical Area Total Energy Project (MATEP) has always been somewhat controversial. In the 1960s and '70s when it was conceived, critics argued that the power plant, which provides energy for Harvard's teaching hospitals, was expensive and inefficient. In the 1980's the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection held long, tortuous hearings over whether Harvard should be allowed to set up an array of diesel electricity generators in the Longwood Medical Area.

Finally, nine years ago, the generators went on-line, and MATEP's goal--that of providing a number of utilities simultaneously and using the waste from one process as fuel for the next, dubbed "cogeneration"--was fulfilled.

The MATEP plant, which has 105 employees and runs 24 hours a day, supplies 95 percent of the electricity for the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and four of Harvard's teaching hospitals--Beth Israel, Children's the Deaconess and Brigham & Women's.

The plant charges the same rates as Boston Edison, which also runs power lines to the hospitals, so that if MATEP were to fall, electrical power would not be interrupted.

Usually hospitals and other large facilities which require stable power sources build their own generators and plants.

But because there are a half-dozen hospitals, and several schools in the Longwood area that are all Harvard-affiliated, Harvard decided to build a single large plant rather than create many smaller ones.

MATEP is the successor to the Harvard Powerhouse, which was built in 1906 but failed to meet the demands for chilled water, steam and electricity required by Harvard's hospitals, which were expanding in number and size.

It is hard to determine how much MATEP actually costs--estimates range from $300 million from the plant's own managers to $500 million from its critics--since the project was paid for with educational and health bonds.

Today MATEP, which is housed in a brick and glass building that blends in with the Longwood urban landscape, is worth about $200 million, according to one of its administrators.

The plant has two steam turbine generators, three boilers, six diesel generators, seven chillers and seven cooling towers.

It can generate enough electricity to run a good-sized town.

There are other power plants in Boston, mostnotably Boston Edison's, but none which produce"total energy" -- chilled water, steam andelectricity--at the same time.

MATEP's cogeneration, principally its recaptureof hot exhaust form the diesel engines, allows itto produce 30 percent more energy perequivalentgallon of oil than normal electric power plants.

Nationally, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has asimilar plant, although it is smaller thanHarvard's .

MATEP itself is a very profitable endeavor. Ittakes in about $48 million a year from its ratepayers, about $10 million of which constituteprofits, a MATEP official says.

It is run by the Congeneration ManagementCompany (CMC), which is a wholly owned subsidiaryof the University.

Power Plant Output

Each hour, the plant produces 62 megawatts ofelectricity, 900,000 pounds of steam and 24,900tons of chilled water.

That adds up to over 225 million kilowatt-hoursof electricity, over one billion pounds of steam,and 45 million ton-hours of refrigeration eachyear.

The generators, cooling towers, chillers andboilers are neatly aligned in arrays in thethree-story building, all run from a large controlroom which has hundreds of panels and monitoringstations.

Not damaging the environment was a principalconcern for MATEP's designers and its currentmanagement. In accordance with regulations, theplant maintains remote monitoring stations--one ison Route 9 in Brookline and another is at theDeaconess Hospital. If levels of nitrous oxide inthe air rise and the wind is blowing from theplant, the diesel generators are powered down.

The plant has double windows, so thatpedestrians on the street cannot hear the dieselgenerators, which are so loud that ear protectionis required inside.

As at any power plant, security is an issue,and all visitors are escorted by security guardsand must be signed in and out by authorizedpersonnel.

Oil deliveries to the plant occur at night andtake place at an interior loading bay, soneighbors are not disturbed.

The building was designed to look likeneighboring hospitals and office towers, soadministrative offices with windows are at thefront, and there is a brick exterior at groundlevel. Some people actually wander inside theplant thinking it is Brigham & Women's Hospital,which is across the Street, MATEP officials says.

Construction Controversy

Neighbors actively tried to block the plant'sconstruction and operation a decade ago, but therehave been few complaints in recent years, saysDonald S. Yeaple, CMC's vice president and generalmanager.

The Massachusetts Department of EnvironmentalProtection announced its intention to approve theentire MATEP Facility in 1977, but disapproved thediesel electric generation portion in 1978 becauseof concerns about the health effects of nitogendioxide emissions.

Harvard appealed the 1978 decision, requestinga formal adjudicatory review of the diesel impact,which included 186 hours of oral testimony andhundreds of pages of written testimony from expertwitnesses to produce some 7,300 pages oftranscript and documents.

The Department disapproved the dieselgeneration again in 1979 but established criteriaunder which they could be approved, which Harvardeventually resolved.

Full operation began only in 1986, almost adecade after the Department's initial intent toapprove.

MATEP's delayed construction and operation madethe plant cost six or seven times what Harvardexpected, Coolidge professor of History David S.Landes says.

Today, some at Harvard question whether theUniversity should be in the power business.

Yeaple acknowledges their concerns, but saysthat MATEP is a more reliable source of powerthan a publicly-owned utility.

MATEP has provided uninterrupted electricservice for at least four years, Yeaple says.

As the CMC promotional video says, if the powergoes out in an operating room or intensive careward, the consequences would be dire.

CMC employees take pride in the service theyprovide, and say that they think about the peopleat the hospitals they are providing electricity,chilled water and steam for.

"We have to remember that we're helping people,not just buildings," says Judith R. Della Barba,manager of administration.

Along with providing reliable service, CMC isable to charge Boston Edison's rates because it isgiven a large discount on the fuel it buys.

The University can use MATEP'S profits forother projects or can repay MATEP's debt, whichnow stands at $100 million, a MATEP official said.

Although MATEP does profit about $10 million ayear, it will still take many years for CMC to payoff its accumulated debt and fund all its capitalprojects.

MATEP's board of directors has seven members,all Harvard-affiliated, including Yeaple, VicePresident for Administration Sally N. Zeckhauser,Vice President of Finance Alan J. Proctor '74 andVice President and General Counsel Margaret H.Marshall.

In the Energy Business ?

The board, which meets once a year, has notrecently discussed whether Harvard should be inthe energy business, but Yeaple says that it maydo so at its next meeting, due to the recentcontroversy over MATEP brought up by Landes atmeetings of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Landes had charged that the University'sCentral Administration decided to build MATEPwithout consulting FAS professors, and that theresulting plant was a $500 million fiasco.

Yet there is evidence that MATEP made sense atthe time it was built: rather than construction ahalf dozen plants, the University decided to buildone and reap the benefits of the economics ofscale.

"It was obviously from a monetary point of viewa bad idea," Landes says.

"Not particularly in advance of the plan, butin view of the political complications," he adds.

MATEP ended up consuming all of Harvard'stax-free bond allowances from the state, Landessays, resulting in a "financial disaster."

MATEP's decade-long hearings and petition toproduce diesel electric energy caused it to losemoney for a protracted period of time, but theplant may eventually pay for itself, given enoughtime.

"You reckon about 20 years for a power plant topay itself back," Yeaple says.

Landes takes greatest issue with the fact thatHarvard's Central Administration--not the Medical,Dental and Public Health schools--paid for MATEP.

"The Faculty of Arts and Sciences gets nothingfrom MATEP," Landes said. "Yet we paid the mostfor it."

Landes lists MATEP along with the constructionof the Harvard Inn and the high rental fees theCentral Administration pays for Holyoke Center asprime examples of the administration paying forprojects without consulting its faculties.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles recentlyestablished the Committee on University Resources,a group of FAS professors charged with examiningany large-budget projects that the CentralAdministration or FAS may undertake.CrimsonJonathan A. LewinA MATEP officials study energy controls.