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.
POWER PLANT INSPECTION
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.
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.