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Great Lake could cool Syracuse buildings

Plan uses Lake Ontario water for air conditioning, and cleaning Onondaga Lake

Sunday, October 24, 2004
By Mark Weiner
Staff writer - Syracuse Post-Standard

A group of community leaders wants Syracuse to become the first city in the United States to cool its downtown buildings with lake water, saving millions of dollars in energy costs.

The naturally chilled water from Lake Ontario's bottom would be pumped to Syracuse, used to remove heat from air conditioning systems in public and private buildings, and recycled into Onondaga Lake.

An intended bonus: Millions of gallons of clean, oxygen-rich water from Lake Ontario would help speed the cleanup of Onondaga Lake, one of the nation's most polluted bodies of water.

Rep. James Walsh, R-Onondaga, is sold on the idea. He included $1.5 million in a House Appropriations bill for fiscal 2005 to conduct an engineering and feasibility study. Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro, the Metropolitan Development Association, Syracuse University and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry say the project could help fuel the region's growth by lowering the cost of utility bills.

Cornelius B. Murphy Jr., president of SUNY-ESF, said using Lake Ontario water to cool his campus buildings could cut electric bills for air conditioning by 75 percent or more.

"I would be the first one to sign up," Murphy said. "I think this is a great legacy project for Onondaga County. This is the kind of thing that could put our community on the cover of Time Magazine."

Walsh agrees.

"The idea is to have a renewable energy source with unlimited chilling power," Walsh said. "After it's used, you're pumping all of this highly oxygenated, fresh, clean water back through the Onondaga Lake system. It's a win-win situation."

Toronto's 'miracle'

On the other side of Lake Ontario, Toronto this summer became the first city in North America to build such a system. The $169 million Canadian project now cools about 10 downtown office towers and other buildings. The Air Canada Centre, the city's indoor sports arena, is also hooked into the system.

The project opened in August to rave reviews from environmentalists and a celebrity with ties to Central New York.

"What's being announced here today is a miracle," said actor Alec Baldwin, who visited Toronto for the system's launch Aug. 17. Baldwin, whose mother lives in Camillus, is an advocate for renewable energy.

"You should be very, very, very proud to live in a city where a consortium of environmental scientists, bold and decisive political leaders, and risk-taking yet ultimately common-sense business leaders come together to make this project become true," Baldwin said.

Toronto's Deep Lake Water Cooling system could eventually serve up to 100 buildings, said Lisa Belanger, spokeswoman for Enwave Energy Corp., the system developer and owner. Enwave is co-owned by the city of Toronto and Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

Enwave says its project reduces energy use by 75 percent compared to mechanical chillers used in air conditioning, and could ultimately free more than 59 megawatts from Ontario's electrical grid. The project keeps about 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide pollution from power plants out of the air, the equivalent of taking 8,000 cars off the road.

It worked for Cornell

Before Toronto built its large-scale system, Cornell University in Ithaca used the same technology with Cayuga Lake in 2000 when it opened the Cornell Lake Source Cooling project.

Cornell's $58 million project, which cools about 75 campus buildings, was the first in North America to use a lake for air conditioning.

Now the four-year-old system is paying big dividends for Cornell: The university says it reduced its power costs for cooling by 86 percent or 25 million kilowatt hours, saving about $2 million per year on its electric bill.

Lanny Joyce, senior engineer and energy manager for Cornell's Department of Utilities and Energy Management, said the cost of installing lake source cooling is nearly twice that of conventional air conditioning. In the long run, Joyce said, the system pays for itself and provides an environmentally sound source of renewable energy.

In Cornell's case, the university decided to tap the lake when it was faced with spending tens of millions of dollars to replace aging air conditioners that contained chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which destroy Earth's ozone layer.

The university paid a premium of about 50 percent over conventional air conditioning to build the lake cooling project, but the savings in electricity will cover the extra cost in about 10 years, Joyce said.

Cornell draws an average of about 20 million gallons a day from 250 feet below the surface of Cayuga Lake, where the water temperature is about 40 degrees during the hottest part of the summer, Joyce said.

The water is pumped about three miles to a heat exchanger on the shore of Cayuga Lake. In the exchanger, the lake water cools down a loop of pipes circulating water from the campus air conditioning system. The water from the lake and the water from campus never mix. The lake water, its cooling work done, is returned to the warmer, upper layers of the lake.

Critics of Cornell's project sued the university and said the warm water discharge would contribute to algae blooms and degrade the quality of Cayuga Lake. Cornell officials disagreed and hired independent scientists to monitor Cayuga Lake's water quality.

Scientists at Upstate Freshwater Institute in Syracuse, who started monitoring the lake in 1998, have not seen changes related to the cooling project, said Steve Effler, UFI's director of research.

"We have noted no conspicuous impact on Cayuga Lake from that facility's operation," Effler said.

Effler, who has studied Onondaga Lake for more than 25 years, said a similar project in Syracuse could help improve the lake.

"It offers some promising possibilities for Onondaga Lake that deserve evaluation," Effler said. "But I think there are substantial challenges. There are issues of how much water is involved, the fact that it would be used mostly in the summer, and the temperature of the water would be crucial."

If water discharged to Onondaga Lake is cold enough, it could sink to the bottom layer of the lake - historically a dead zone with little oxygen to support fish or other aquatic life. That would help restore oxygen to that layer.

Effler said the Lake Ontario water also could help dilute the algae blooms that plague Onondaga Lake each summer, producing unpleasant odors as the algae dies and rots.

Economic pipeline

To find out if the plan will work, and how much it would cost, Walsh asked for the $1.5 million grant for Onondaga County's Metropolitan Water Board. The money is expected to be approved by Congress by the end of the year and the study could start in early 2005.

The water board has agreed to work with SUNY-ESF and its Center for Sustainable and Renewable Energy, the Syracuse University Center of Excellence in Environmental Systems, and O'Brien & Gere Engineers, of DeWitt.

The water board owns a 25-mile concrete pipeline that carries Lake Ontario drinking water to its main reservoir on Route 31 in Clay.

If the board goes forward with the lake cooling project, it would likely build a second water pipeline on the water board's existing right of way, said David Fitch, executive director of the water board.

The existing concrete pipeline cost $7 million to finish in 1967. It has the capacity to carry 50 million gallons per day, with an average demand of about 25 million gallons per day.

Walsh said a redundant pipeline, adding water capacity, would help both the cooling project and open doors for economic development.

Walsh said he discussed the lake cooling project with Pyramid Cos. founder Robert Congel, the developer who wants to build the Destiny USA retail and entertainment complex near Onondaga Lake. It is planned as a "green" development relying on alternative fuel and renewable energy.

"He's talking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil," Walsh said. "And this is a natural. They're right there on the lake."

Peter McCue, a spokesman for Destiny USA, confirmed that executives for The Pyramid Cos. are interested in the project.

"They're very high on it," McCue said. "It's quite an ambitious concept, but one that if it bears out would be a tremendous alternative to fossil fuel."

Pirro said it's too early to tell how many customers might be served by the lake cooling project, or what kind of authority might oversee its operation.

The county will explore using the lake water to cool its complex of buildings downtown, Pirro said. Those include the Onondaga County Civic Center, the two courthouses, Justice Center and Everson Museum.

In 2003, Onondaga County spent about $4.8 million on energy for its downtown buildings, and $17.1 million on its facilities countywide.

"One of the reasons I'm enthused about this idea is that we're putting together the best minds to look at this," Pirro said. "Certainly it will help Onondaga Lake. It will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for producing electricity. And by having naturally chilled water, this would save us a tremendous amount of money."

MDA weighs in

Irwin Davis, president of the Metropolitan Development Association, said he has no doubt the lake cooling project would make Central New York a better place to live and work.

"Not only could it be a major economic benefit to assist us to grow, but it could be a competitive advantage over other cities," Davis said.

He said the construction of a second water pipeline would be as significant as the 1962 decision by the MDA and Onondaga County to tap Lake Ontario.

"When you show to the world how you are innovative and use an alternative natural resource, it makes your community more attractive to attract and retain companies," Davis said. "If the feasibility study proves positive, it's a big win for the region in many ways."

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