A passerby walking along Gayley Avenue near the Mattel Children’s Hospital may frequently notice the billowing clouds of steam coming from several smokestack-like towers.

However, this steam is only one aspect of the three-story cogeneration power plant facility known as “Co-gen.”

UCLA is one of several college campuses that have their own central power plants. Other universities include UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, Stanford and UC Berkeley, as well as the UC Davis Medical Center.

Built in 1994, the UCLA plant provides heating, cooling and electricity for the campus and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, excluding housing. At the same time, the facility reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

“Since we generate more power on our own, instead of buying it from (The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power), without it, emissions would be higher,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA sustainability coordinator.

The process begins on the main floor of the Facilities Management building, located near the new police station, where gas turbines powered by jet engines burn natural gas. The exhaust from this procedure is used to power an electric generator.

This action alone produces 44.5 megawatts of electricity, enough power to service 10,000 residential homes, said David Johnson, director of energy services and utilities.

From there, the exhaust is funneled through a heat-recovery steam generator, which is located on the roof of the facility.

This process also recovers a majority of the waste heat for reuse. The steam is then run through a steam turbine, located on the main floor, and then connected to another generator to produce more energy.

“A pretty good major electric station has a 42 percent efficiency,” Johnson said. “UCLA’s peak (efficiency) is 80 percent in converting to useful energy.”

Heating is also produced from the steam, as the steam is sent to campus via large pipes as a source of heating.

Co-gen also generates chill water for use in air conditioning units in various buildings. The plant contains seven chillers to produce a total of almost 22,000 tons of air conditioning, which is still not enough to service the entire campus, Johnson said. He added that huge pipes in the basement of the facility measuring 36 inches in diameter are used to circulate the water throughout campus.

Although Co-gen generates a substantial amount of the utilities needed on campus, UCLA is also connected with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for electricity.

“The campus needs more than what is produced by Co-gen,” Johnson said. “But we try to make as much as we can.”

On nights and weekends, the plant is able to meet the needs of the campus. But during the weekdays, UCLA is forced to buy additional power from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Johnson said.

However, in comparison to the energy produced by the municipal utility agency, Johnson said that UCLA’s plant is more efficient.

“There is less carbon dioxide emitted,” he said.

He also emphasized Co-gen’s role in UCLA’s drive to become more sustainable. Although the plant has the capability of using diesel fuel oil to power operations, it relies on natural gas, which has lower emissions than fuel.

“We only use (diesel fuel) to test if it works,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, we don’t use it.”

The plant also utilizes combustible landfill gas, which is methane gas that has been produced as a result of decay. Much like natural gas, combustible landfill gas also reduces the emissions of the campus.

In the past, UCLA relied on a central steam-generating facility for heating, which was located in the basement of Royce Hall. However, in the early 1950s, this facility was moved to the intersection of Charles E. Young Drive and Westwood Boulevard, the current location of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

The facility came to its present location in the Facilities Management building once the medical center was built. At the same time, the power plant incorporated the air conditioning chillers into the main building to replace the individual chillers that were once located in various buildings on campus, Johnson said.

Despite the hazards in the power plant, including loud noises in the basement, hot pipes and areas that require the wearing of hard hats, students have been able to tour the facility.

Adam Benson, a second-year environmental science student and sustainability director for the UCLA Jazz Reggae Festival, visited the plant to learn about how Co-gen would power the upcoming festival.

“It was very interesting from the viewpoint of an environmental science major and our generation at UCLA,” Benson said. “We usually use biodiesel to fuel Jazz Reggae (Festival), so using Co-gen is a great thing.”

With its emphasis on efficiency and use of more environmentally friendly gases, the Co-gen plant aligns with UCLA’s recent initiative to become more sustainable.

“Co-gen is part of our past actions,” Katz said. “It lay the foundation of reduction that we are building on.”