Emissions rule calls future of city power plant into question

Thursday, March 8, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:30 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 8, 2012
The No. 5 turbine at the Municipal Power Plant in Columbia forces steam through a turbine to produce electricity.* This is the oldest turbine currently running there, a part of the plant since 1957. Following the creation of new EPA regulations, old boilers and turbines at the power plant will be assessed beginning in April by the Lutz, Daily and Brain engineering firm in order to see if the old equipment can be brought up to date. If the old equipment is not worth updating, the plant will not be able to continue running.

COLUMBIA — The bright rays of an industrial flashlight shine down into the cold belly of boiler No. 7. Its dark cavern routinely fires up an inferno of 2,500 degrees to burn coal and wood at the local power plant.

Christian Johanningmeier, power production superintendent, points the light at the walls of the dark belly and says the pipes inside need to be checked to determine whether they've corroded over time. 



The city has hired an engineering firm to inspect the coal and wood burning boilers and turbines at the Municipal Power Plant and determine whether it's cost effective to add equipment to meet new federal air pollution standards.

Columbia Water and Light plans to ask the Columbia City Council to pay Lutz, Daily & Brain up to $568,100 for a three-part study of the power plant on Business Loop 70. Christian Johanningmeier, power production superintendent, said the inspection and testing of the plant is expected to be done when the plant is shut down in April, May and June.

Part 1: Engineers will test the plant's performance, evaluate boilers that use coal and wood chips to generate electricity and determine how much longer the boilers will remain useful. Cost: $283,500.

Part 2: The firm will inspect and analyze the plant's many parts that work in tandem with the turbines and boilers, including condensers, cooling towers, air compressors and chimney. After the inspection, engineers will submit a report to Columbia Water and Light. Cost: $263,200.

Part 3: This section of the plan is optional. According to the proposal, it would involvecreating a strategy to comply with air pollution regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency that are the driving force behind the study. Columbia Water and Light plans to decide whether to continue to part three once the state of the Environmental Protection Agency's rules have become more defined. Cost: $21,400.

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The aging coal and wood burning boilers and turbines at the Municipal Power Plant, along with all the peripheral parts, are in line for their most intense inspection since the plant began operation.

"To my knowledge, we've never done an inspection to this degree or depth," Johanningmeier said.

Columbia Water and Light plans to hire an engineering firm to determine whether it makes economic sense to update the plant to comply with new air pollution regulations or to shutter the plant that's been generating electricity for Columbia since 1914.

The plant won't be able to operate in the future without expensive new equipment to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, along with other pollutants, that the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded contribute to respiratory illnesses and other health problems.

The restrictions are also designed to reduce fine particles in power plant emissions — some as small as 1/30th the diameter of a strand of human hair — that can easily be inhaled into the lungs, according to the EPA.

Johanningmeier said the new equipment needed to reduce emissions includes a long list of possible technologies with names such as an electrostatic precipitator, over-fire air system or combustion optimization.

Any additions to update the boilers and other parts of the plant could cost millions and would likely require a public vote on a bond issue to finance, said Tad Johnsen, director of Columbia Water and Light.

An engineering firm has already determined that new technology could be installed to accommodate the new air pollution rules.

The remaining question, however, is whether the new equipment would last as long as the boilers and turbines at the power plant, which range from 41 to 55 years old. The city has asked the engineering firm Lutz, Daily & Brain, based in Overland Park, Kan., to determine whether updating the boilers and turbines would be worth the expense.

"If we were to make a capital investment in the plant for additional pollution control equipment, we need to be sure of how much it would cost to make the equipment that's there right now last as long," Johnsen said.

If engineers determine it would not be cost-effective to install new air quality controls on the older equipment, the boilers and turbines that generate most of the plant's electricity could be shut down, Johanningmeier said.

Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said he'd like to know if "the benefit of having our own power plant outweighs the cost of buying power off the grid."

Until 1962, the Municipal Power Plant produced all of Columbia's electricity. These days, the plant provides 6 to 8 percent of the city's power, Johanningmeier said, with the bulk of the city's electricity purchased from outside sources.

The engineers of Lutz, Daily & Brain are expected to answer that question once their inspection of the plant is complete. There are costs and benefits to running the local power plant with coal and wood burning components.

Although updating the equipment could cost millions, the local power plant does provide some electrical security.

Without local electricity production, "If there's grid upsets or blackouts, we're not as able to keep electricity supply in our area," Johnsen said.

The City Council will be asked to authorize the power plant inspection as early as its March 19 meeting, Johanningmeier said. The bulk of the work would be done during April, May and June and require a shut down of the plant.

The power plant normally shuts down for about six weeks for maintenance each spring, said Connie Kacprowicz, utility services specialist at Columbia Water and Light. Shutting down the plant for a longer period of time for the inspection shouldn't be a problem, she said, because electric loads are at their lowest in the spring.

Based on the results of the study, Columbia Water and Light will have to decide whether to recommend updating the plant.

There's "a lot of uncertainty with respect to the regulations at this time," Johanningmier said. "Everything is in a great state of flux with the new rules, but we should know within a year or two what will be happening."

If the study shows it would not make economic sense to update the boilers and turbines, "we'd have to decide how long we could run the units and still remain compliant," with the EPA's rules, Johanningmeier said.

"Our goal is to get the most reliable service at the best price," Johnsen said.

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Ellis Smith March 8, 2012 | 7:07 a.m.

The caption under the photo says that the turbine "spins water to create energy." Are you sure STEAM isn't involved? Otherwise, why would you have boilers?

This is, however, a useful article, because the situation given is one common to old solid fuel generating plants. Yes, technology exists to "scrub" sulfur and particulates from stack emissions, but it's expensive. You don't get something for nothing - at least not in the engineering world.

I began my industrial career in 1957, the same year as the oldest turbine at this plant. Little is done today as it was then - and thank God for that!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 8, 2012 | 9:18 a.m.

I understood from the IRP that Turbine 6 was a natural gas fired turbine, and Turbine 8 was a gas fired boiler. Total capacity from those resources was about 50 MW. Will CWL also take those resources offline, because they could easily meet emission standards with those?


(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer March 8, 2012 | 10:11 a.m.

We're looking into both of your questions and will report back. Thanks.

Joy Mayer
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Jessica Clark March 8, 2012 | 11:37 a.m.

Thanks for your questions. I'll do my best to answer both questions here.

The No. 5 generator forces steam through a turbine to produce electricity.

Columbia Water and Light does not plan on taking the natural gas boiler No. 8, turbine No. 8, or the combustion turbine offline at this time. However, Connie Kacprowicz said, the plant is keeping an eye out for future regulations that could affect the emissions that natural gas production generates.

Jessica Clark
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 8, 2012 | 12:14 p.m.

Joy and Jessica:

Just for the record, water and steam are not physically the same thing, although both have the same chemical formula.

Physical Chemistry. They teach it at MU too.

Many old installations are thermally inefficient versus what is available today. So even if funding is available to "marry" a state-of-the-art emissions control system to an old boiler/generator system it doesn't make engineering sense to do so.

Maybe some humor would be appropriate. One of the corporations I worked for had a Canadian customer called Volcano Boilers. I'm not sure that if I were manufacturing boilers I'd use the term "Volcano."

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 8, 2012 | 12:33 p.m.

Thank you for the answer, Jessica. Even without the coal resources, this means that with the Columbia Energy Center, Columbia could generate about 190 MW of electricty, or enough to meet its needs about 90% of the time (I realize the reason we don't do that is economic).

Ellis, you probably know that a pressure vessel for hydrogenation in the chemical laboratory is called a "bomb". Unfortunately, if used carelessly, that is one of its possible functions.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 8, 2012 | 1:05 p.m.

Yes, DK, and I'm also familiar with Kjeldahl digestion flasks, used in a procedure to determine the nitrogen content of fertilizers. While that has nothing to do with my occupation I was required to run the test as part of quant chemistry.

Kjeldahl is a "cute" procedure: you have a concentrated acid and a concentrated base together in the same glass flask. Then you apply [controlled] heat!

Perhaps we should apply the Kjeldahl fertilizer test to comments made in this forum.

(Report Comment)
John Smith March 8, 2012 | 6:48 p.m.

I'm surprised many people knew about the Columbia Energy Center or the 40 million dollar pile of junk that the City decided to waste it's money on and only ran a couple days last year... A certain company was laughing all the way to the bank on that sale! I think personally they should buy some more land, build some more parks and parking garages that are only maybe 50% occupied and loosing thousands of dollars on! Man it cracks me up!

(Report Comment)
Tim McCreary April 25, 2012 | 10:17 p.m.

These issues (to move ahead w/ pollution controls; idle units; buy power) are moving in a vastly more complex arena than just what seems obvious to the citizenry. Buying power off the grid isn't just so simple anymore (especially when one is a small time user...and unfortunately the City of Columbia is) nor is that reliable (as noted by the plant staff).

There are issues of local grid system security (a vast network of NERC regulations) which may be lost as time goes on with reliance on outside power sources, jobs lost to the community if the plants are shut down, grid stabilization for local users (which at times pays more than mere generation); additional pollution caused at other plants that now must make up the loss of the Columbia contribution to the free lunch.

Even use of gas firing has new requirements mandated by the EPA under the MACT rules. The obvious immediate benefit of gas fired turbines or converting units burning solid fuels to gas firing is the low cost of natural gas presently. But will that hold over 5 or 10 years? The history isn't so good. A little more than a dozen years ago the American Gas Association told us we were going to run out before the new century started.

As a nation, we've enjoyed the benefits of easy access to plentiful fuel and natural resources and didn't really pay a lot of attention to being good stewards of nature. The sins of the past are catching up to us. No other country in the world, even those with similar levels of natural resources, enjoys the low cost of energy we have. The resolution of this is more than a local issue; we are citizens of a nation; energy independence is a real, vital issue. Electricity is the main driver of today's economy.

I no longer live in Missouri, but if I were living in Columbia, my vote would be to keep those units going and would willingly accept the incremental cost for the long term good of the environment and the nation.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 26, 2012 | 7:47 a.m.

CW&L was very lucky to be able to buy the capascity of Columbia Energy Center for the dirt-cheap price of $350/kw. It would have taken three times the cost/kw to build it new.

Tim is right - we will face increasing levels of uncertainty in electrical supply from far away, plus need to deal with filling in the gaps of random generation from renewables, and this facility was just what the doctor (or engineer) ordered. We won't regret doing this.


(Report Comment)

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