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$150M UAMS Energy Project Ensures Unbroken Power, Savings CertaintyLock Icon

7 min read

The face of a $150 million energy project at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences peers down on visitors to the northeast side of the Little Rock campus, just behind the Markham Street Walgreens.

It’s a $51 million home for eight new backup generators offering 24 total megawatts of electricity to the academic medical center in midtown, and ensuring uninterrupted power across the 84-acre campus.

But the vast project’s guts — to use a nonclinical term — are the miles of electrical conduits, hundreds of mechanical upgrades and 100,000 LED bulbs scattered through the campus promising about $5 million a year in utility savings, and $4.8 million in average annual savings over total project costs.

“There’s a number of projects going on in the interior” of the campus’s 5.2 million SF of buildings, said Tim Staley, executive vice president of operations for Bernhard. “You just can’t see it from the outside.” Bernhard is the energy services performance contractor overseeing the construction and refit work, which is scheduled to be completed by November 2022.

“That particular part, the generator plant, is pretty prominent, and it’s moving along ahead of schedule,” said Staley, an admittedly detail-obsessed engineer who is coordinating construction and retrofit work by CDI Contractors, Clark Contractors and Kirchner Architecture, all of Little Rock, and electrical subcontractor Clear Energy of Fayetteville.

The goals of the project, which was financed through a bond issue approved in 2019 by the University of Arkansas System board of trustees, are many: saving money for UAMS to devote to other needs, replacing the campus’ 1960s vintage mechanical infrastructure, and even improving traffic and pedestrian safety with a street redesign and new exterior lighting.

14 Energy-Saving Measures

Planners are taking advantage of the construction excavation to go ahead and remake Cedar and Pine streets into a side-by-side boulevard on the east side of the complex south of Plateau Street. They now run in opposite directions a block apart between Markham and Interstate 630, with Cedar cutting inconveniently through campus. The city of Little Rock is kicking in $4.6 million of the nearly $11.2 million cost of the street work, which should be complete by April 2023.

The new power plant, though, is the biggest of 14 energy conservation savings measures Bernhard will be tracking and guaranteeing for 20 years, Staley said. The new system’s eight diesel-fired generators will replace 20 aged generators at different buildings, connecting to new building control systems engineered to optimize efficiency.

Designers planned the generator building for quick construction, and UAMS will get reliability and savings as soon as it comes online, Staley said. Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson and other dignitaries broke ground on the overall project in November 2019, and construction began a year ago.

“We are seeing to the health of the university’s physical plant, so UAMS can continue to focus vigorously on the health of Arkansans, the education of its students and the innovation of its researchers,” Patterson said at the time. “Part of our responsibility is being a good steward of the public’s dollars and of our finances in the most efficient way. This will help us do that.”

The generation plant is “really critical from a reliability standpoint. It’s also critical from an energy saving standpoint,” Staley said, “because it enables UAMS to take advantage of a special electricity rate Entergy called the optional interruptible service rider.”

Under that provision, a power company charges less in exchange for the right to interrupt electric service in some circumstances, something UAMS will be able to allow campuswide with the assurance of 100% backup power.

No More Lost Specimens

But reliability, not savings, drove early discussions of the project, said Christina Clark, UAMS vice chancellor for institutional support services and chief operating officer. “It was to have uninterruptible power for our campus,” she said, explaining that patient care areas already had backup power through the campus’s west generator plant, which will remain in operation, but that other buildings and parts of buildings, including research areas, were vulnerable to power failures. “A few years back, we did lose about 10 years of specimens and cultures because we had an outage and we had freezers that weren’t on red outlets, the outlets that give uninterrupted power.”

She said the university is pleased that the generation plant is ahead of schedule. “We’re a year in, and the north portion of the plant has been built,” she said. “Once we do the roof decking, we’ll start on the south part of the building.”

The first of the eight generators arrived last week, she said, and the rest are set to arrive by the end of the year. “The generators will be available whenever we need them to go on” for power bill savings, she added. “They just switch on automatically when we lose power.”

While the generation plant is a third of the entire $150 million project cost, another priority was addressing $101 million in maintenance needs, said Clark, an Amarillo, Texas, native who got her master’s from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and has worked 22 years for UAMS. “We’re going to get additional energy savings through upgrading to current mechanical and electrical equipment. The other large savings component is changing out all of our lighting to LED, and we’re about 70% complete with that.”

“We were bonded for $150 million, with $51 million of that for the generator building and $11.2 million for the Pine-Cedar realignment,” Clark added. “The rest is going to mechanical, electrical and efficiency lighting upgrades.”

Staley, the Bernhard EVP, said that UAMS identified deferred maintenance needs and mechanical and infrastructure upgrades and began brainstorming on funding the work several years ago. “We came up with this plan for a large-scale energy project that will not only achieve energy and operational cost savings, but also help address a lot of their critical and deferred maintenance.”

“We were bonded for $150 million, with $51 million of that for the generator building and $11.2 million for the Pine-Cedar realignment. The rest is going to mechanical, electrical and efficiency lighting upgrades.”



Documenting the Savings

Bernhard came on board in August 2018, delivering an investment-grade audit assessing all energy and operations costs, conceiving the scope of the work and formalizing the overall cost and savings foreseen under the project. Bernhard submitted its formal proposal to UAMS early last year.

“This type of project is done under an energy services performance contract,” with Bernhard “having responsibility for the design, installation and completion, and then guaranteeing all of the energy savings that we have estimated to be achieved under the project,” Staley said.

Part of the job will be measuring and documenting utility savings “on an ongoing basis over a 20-year period after completion of the project.”

UAMS’ energy efficiency ranking after the project is expected to land in the top 1% of all academic medical centers in the United States.

Clark said UAMS had “just started tracking our energy savings, and to date we’re roughly $400,000 to the good. And as the energy plant comes online, we’ll start achieving a lot more additional savings.”

By using guaranteed capital and operational savings, UAMS will be in a better position to “weather the perfect storm of declining reimbursements and ever-increasing costs, challenges faced by many academic medical centers nationwide,” Clark said.

UAMS has 2,876 students, 898 medical residents and four dental residents. It is also the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians.

Bernhard brought CDI and Clark Contractors onboard after deciding “it was beneficial to the project to have partners with their capability and resources to help manage the day to day construction,” Staley said. On a typical workday, over 300 construction workers are at the site, including a dedicated Bernhard staff or 10 or 12 employees, he said.

Despite using diesel, the new generators are Tier 4 units with “the lowest level of air emissions,” Staley said. “We looked carefully at fuel alternatives, but because they operate only a few hours out of the year, the most cost-effective option was to use diesel fuel.”

UAMS will now have 100% reliable power “for their research functions, their clinical functions and the remainder of their entire campus,” he said.

Beyond savings with new lighting and up-to-date heating and cooling systems, UAMS will have building automation systems to streamline maintenance operations. “Like any facility, they have constraints on their time and resources,” Staley said. “Now the maintenance staff can access more systems remotely, using their phone or an iPad through an app.”

The Safety Factor

Along with electrical system upgrades, the project is replacing mechanical systems “that have just reached the end of their economic lives,” Staley said.

“Like any equipment that gets old, it needs to be replaced. This project provides a funding mechanism to replace a number of their older mechanical systems.”

The roadwork entered the picture when planners realized they could “gain some construction efficiencies and reduce project costs by completing some of the excavation work for the road and infrastructure improvements at the same time,” Staley said.

The Cedar Street adjustment might also help UAMS employees stay out of the emergency room, eliminating dangerous crossings from buildings to parking spaces. “There were some issues where employees had to cross a busy Cedar Street to get to their cars, which created some safety risk,” Staley said. “Relocating Cedar to the east eliminates this risk for the employee.”

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