New steam plant gears up for first ‘shut off’ since the plants opening

On Jan. 3, 2023, the crew of the old steam plant shifted gears to the new $33 million plant.  

Steam plant supervisor Terry Riouff says there have been “growing pains,” but the transition was better than he expected. 


The history of the plant 

Have you ever wondered where your hot water and heat come from here in Cullowhee? 

WCU’s iconic steam plant, built in 1923, originally ran on one boiler powered by coal. Photo by Liam Bridgeman.

The answer is simple. Since 1889, when the school was founded, it has come in the form of steam. 

WCU’s iconic steam plant was built in 1923, a replacement of sorts for the first plant. Campus originally ran on one boiler powered by coal. Since that time many renovations have come to the plant.  

In 1966, a second boiler was installed, converting the source of energy from coal to number six fuel oil, also called black oil. This boiler, installed in 1966, was still in use until the team ‘retired’ the old plant. WCU’s main source of heat and hot water since 1973 came from three separate boilers. 

When Riouff began working at WCU in the 1990s, the plant had four boilers. By that time, all the boilers had made another energy conversion from number six oil to natural gas.  


How we received the new plant 

Until 1989, Riouff was a boiler operator in the Navy. In 1994, Riouff interviewed for the job of boiler operator at WCU.  

Since his first interview with the school, nearly 29 years ago, there were talks of building a new steam plant.  

“It finally became a reality. It took a lot of things. The right administration and the right people to make this work,” Riouff said. 

He pointed to WCU’s recent administrations as the key to receiving the funding needed to build a new plant.  

Riouff explained the late Chancellor Belcher was a strong advocate for replacing the steam plant. Since then, “[the administration] drug every politician that came west of Asheville to say, ‘look what we are dealing with’.” 

It was no secret that WCU needed a new plant. The boilers were ‘on their last legs’.  

Riouff explained, the boilers that WCU installed in 1966, 1969 and 1973, were all designed to last 20 years. The oldest boiler, running 37 years after its ‘due date’ was exactly scripted.  

In 2017, legislation was approved and WCU received $750,000 toward designing the replacement steam plant. The funding for the initial construction, $16.5 million from the state budget, came in 2018, funding the first half of the project. The last $16.5 million was reserved for the 2020 budget.  

Riouff says the old plant ‘kicked off’ every day for a week around the Christmas of 2022, thankfully students were not on campus.  

“It was so cold, the plant couldn’t keep up,” he said. 

The new plant was finished, and it was time for the changing of the guard.  


The new plant 

The new steam plant stresses efficiency. 

The new plant operates using natural gas with diesel fuel as a backup source. The new plant is able to give WCU 110,000 pounds of steam per hour at 90% efficiency. The old plant was only able to produce 107,000 pounds of steam per hour at 50% efficiency. 

This means that water is able to be boiled using less natural gas. 

One of three boilers that the new steam plant runs on. At max capacity, the plant can produce 110,000 pounds of steam per hour. Photo by Liam Bridgeman.

By 2016, the old plant had six different boilers. The new plant, however, runs on two during the cold months and a smaller boiler will be run during the summer.  

“There’s some growing pains,” Riouff said. The new plant uses all new equipment compared to the old plant but the transition has been smoother than he expected.  

“If everything would have worked right, right out of the gate, I would have been scared to death,” Riouff said jokingly.  

Riouff’s 30-year anniversary working at the school will be in May of 2024. He has not yet decided how long he will work.