Julianne Couch visits the Laramie Basic Electric Station, one of 500 U.S. coal-powered plants still fired up and burning fossil fuel.
In these days when our national energy policy and our household economies trend toward “going green,” the Obama administration promises to ramp up the contribution of renewables such as wind and solar power to our nation’s electric grid. But coal-fired electric power plants in the United States are not headed back to the days of the dinosaur, from whence the coal they burn came. Big power plants, with their smokestacks, cooling towers and coal conveyors, puffing out scrubbed sulfur dioxide, are still an essential part of our energy package. In fact, there are about 500 of them are still up and running in the U.S., providing around half of our nation’s energy.
Coal fired power plants have been denounced as a source of toxins in the air and water, and for good reason. According to the EPA, burning coal emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s why environmental laws have been tightened over the years to reduce their emissions and why research about cleaner coal technology has increased.
I’m on a quest to see first hand how various sorts of power are generated in this country. That’s why I decided to visit the Laramie Basic Electric Station near Wheatland, Wyoming, about 80 miles from Laramie, where I live.
I arranged a tour of the plant for one July afternoon when the temperature in Wheatland was a characteristic 95 degrees. I was to meet Richard Bower, who among his other responsibilities gives approximately 70 tours of the station each year. He arranged to meet me “at 13:00 hours,” his use of military time presumably left over from his days in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. The lobby, all glass walls and rich wood interior, seemed more like a fancy hotel than a power station alone on the high plains of eastern Wyoming.
Bower greeted me right on time. With his straight posture, cool blue eyes, deep husky voice, crisp salmon dress shirt and tan slacks, he reminded me of a better looking Lee Marvin. He handed me my hard hat and ear plugs and, with the assistance of the office staff, helped me decide which style of safety glasses would best fit my face.
The official tour started in front of a bank of illuminated maps, diagrams and displays. They showed how coal comes from the ground, gets transported to the plant, is pulverized and burned — which creates steam that moves turbines that create electricity, which zaps through transmission lines and eventually powers our homes and businesses. Bower explained that The Missouri Basin Power Project (MBPP), a group of six electric utilities, owns the plant and adjacent facilities. North Dakota-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a 42.27 percent owner of the project, is also its operating agent. The electricity produced at Laramie River is sent to substations in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado, where it is then delivered to MBPP participants.
Laramie River Station comprises three coal-based units, each with 550 megawatts of capacity. Units 1, 2 and 3 began operating in 1980, 1981 and 1982, respectively. Laramie River is unique because it delivers electricity to two separate electrical grids. Unit 1 is connected to the Eastern Interconnection, units 2 and 3 to the Western Interconnection. These grids were developed independently and must be served separately.
After this lobby map orientation session, it was time to don the safety gear and start the tour. Bower rattled off statistics about the plant’s construction. Boiler height: 225 feet. Stack height: 605 feet. Construction costs: $1.6 billion. Environmental controls investment: $330 million. Fuel consumption: 375 tons of pulverized coal per hour (per unit). Fuel supply: Sub-bituminous coal supplied by Western Fuels Association. Horsepower: 600,000 per each of the three units.
Even though the plant employs roughly 300 people, we saw hardly a soul on our tour. Perhaps most people don’t chose to spend a 95 degree day traipsing around a power plant, taking in sites like the electrostatic precipitator, the sulfur dioxide scrubber, and the coal silo.
Between the heat and the ever-present sound of screeching metal, it is no wonder I was the only visitor on this particular tour.
Our first stop was the seven pulverizers, which reduce coal to dust for burning. Then we walked by the bottom ash hoppers. When coal is burned most of the ash goes up the flue and is captured and recovered as fly ash. The rest of it, a heavy gray mess called bottom ash, is collected in a hopper. The bottom ash is periodically removed by high-pressure water jets. The material can be stored in a disposal pond or used as roadway material.
Next we took an elevator to the third floor, to the turbine/generator deck. This was at once one off the hottest places on the tour and the coolest in terms of wow factor. With the temperature reading over 100, Bower at last broke into a controlled sweat as he explained how electricity is created. My slim reporter’s notepad and digital recorder were as useless at taking in this information as were my safety-protected ears. The 7 -inch-thick floor-decking vibrated from the power of the turbine/generator. I was standing on the thunderbolt forge of Zeus and couldn’t hear a thing.
Just when I feared Bower was going to open another door and lead me deeper into the bowels of the plant, he directed me to the computerized control room that runs the entire plant operation. There I found Tony Francis, Nick Cancino and Joe Holtzclaw hard at the sort of work that appears at first glance not to be work at all. Francis gave me the basics of what I was seeing on dozens of quietly humming computer monitors. Each displayed schematics of the various plant systems. If something seems awry, one of the operators in the control room can pick up a phone and dispatch a less fortunate plant employee actually to confront the balky machinery and fix it.
After the noisy and hot plant, the control room was so pleasant that Bower and I were reluctant to leave, and instead hung around to chat up the control room operators. Soon the talk turned to speculation about the future of coal-fired power plants. Tony Francis said he thought that coal fired plants like this one would always be part of the mix in meeting U.S. energy needs. He thought nuclear, wind and solar would also be significant sources of energy.
Bower said he thought that the ANWR area in Alaska should be drilled. “What’s up there,” he asked rhetorically. “Caribou?” But Nick Cancino thought that the caribou should be protected along with the other natural features that make ANWR irreplaceable.
Bower and I reluctantly said goodbye to the fellows in the control room and headed up to the roof of the boiler room. From there we could see much of Platte County’s farmland and could make out Gray Rocks reservoir, which the power company created by damming the Laramie River. The reservoir normally provides an adequate water source for the plant. But during drought, like when I took my tour, the plant doesn’t draw down water from the reservoir. Instead, the power company leases 50-plus wells from ranchers in the area. One benefit of damming the river is that locals can spend hot summer days drinking beer and pulling fish out of the 8-mile long reservoir, whose cool waters were looking pretty tempting to me from the hot roof.
The energy industry in general gets mixed reviews for their environmental impacts, and utilities in Wyoming are no exception. But most of the people who work for the Laramie River Basin Station live in or close to Wheatland, population 3,500. They are the ones on the ground to point out any degradations in the quality of their environment or recreation and complain about the problems. Eastern Wyoming may not have the grand scenery with a capital S featured in Sierra Club calendar art, but that doesn’t mean its environmental health isn’t important to the people, animals and plants that live there. ANWR is just one place in the fabric of irreplaceable places.
In addition to seeing the understated topography of Platte County, we also had a good view from the roof of some of the plant’s environmental control equipment. The purpose of that equipment is to control the pollutants created by burning a fossil fuel. Bower explained that when gas leaves the steam generator, or boiler, it enters the precipitator. That’s where about 99 percent of the fly ash is electrostatically charged and collected on a series of large collector plates. Then when the plates are mechanically rapped, the ash falls, is collected in hoppers, and conveyed to temporary storage silos. The flue gas, now minus its fly ash, enters the gas desulphurization system, also known as the scrubber. It is sprayed with a limestone slurry to remove the sulfur dioxide to comply with EPA and other government regulations. The “cleaned” flue gas is discharged through the chimney stack.
As Bower was explaining these details to me from the scorching rooftop, my eye wandered to what I really wanted to see: the coal trains.
It is impossible to live in Wyoming without noticing the mile-long coal trains packed with piles of what amounts to the ground under our feet being toted off to power plants in other states. According to federal Energy Information Administration (EIS) data, since 1998 Wyoming has produced more coal than any other state in the nation. In 2007, the latest statistics available, Wyoming produced 453.6 million tons of coal. Since 1995, Wyoming has contributed more than one-quarter of total U.S. coal production.
The Laramie Basin Power station buys all of its coal from the mines in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming. I’ve always wondered how they got all that coal in and out of the cars. After I dropped a few more hints, Bower loaded me into the tour van and drove me past the coal silo, coal stockpile and finally, to the unloading building. John Dietrick was at the controls of the rotary dumper, which is like a large clamp. He grasped each gondola car and slowly turned the car upside down and in a black avalanche, dumped the coal into awaiting hoppers and feeders. I observed the proceedings from a catwalk directly above the action, while Bower stood coolly in the operator’s glass and steel rotary dumper cab. After the dumping of one car, which took about two minutes, the coal dust on my jeans and shoes was as thick as it was on the concrete floor.
When Bower returned me to the main building at 16:00 hours, the office staff had left for the day. Because of the noise and general chaos of a coal-fired power plant, I feared my note taking was rather poor. I’d have to supplement what I learned about how power is produced from burning coal by doing more research and having a few follow-up conversations with Bower. I also resolved to learn more about clean-coal technology research. And I wanted to talk to some of the landowners whose wells the power company leases when drought lowers the reservoir levels. These issues had not meant much to me before I saw the inner operations of the plant for myself.
Although I still had questions, Bower wasn’t going to let me leave without plenty of memories of my tour. He took me to a storage space behind a conference room and rooted around in some file cabinets for a souvenir plastic water bottle and Laramie Basin pen. As I stood there feeling hot and grubby, covered in coal dust and sensing I had a serious case of hard-hat hair, I noticed something remarkable about Bower in his immaculate shirt, slacks and dress shoes. “Why aren’t you dirty?” I whined, incredulous. “I never get dirty,” he said, standing even straighter. “Most people around here just don’t know how to walk.”