Enduring power

Ninety-nine years after Columbia built its own power plant, the beast is still kicking
Sunday, September 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On sunny days, its rusty beige stack, topped by a black rain shield, stands silhouetted against the sky. An asymmetrical, disproportionate manmade beast fenced with barbed wire, the Columbia Municipal Power Plant towers above Business Loop 70.

Inside, in its greenish off-white belly, amidst metal and steam, the miracle of energy is born in coal heat. The energy sparks through the boilers’ steam, runs into the turbines and becomes a stream of electrons. Those who make it happen are surprisingly sun-baked and wear uniforms of blue T-shirts and jeans.

It’s a place for men who play macho jokes on each other but believe in lifelong friendships. Nine months a year they work in the power-breathing beast, where hissing, booming and sizzling fill the air, as the boilers heat at hundreds of degrees and the turbines run beneath mountains of metal and brick. Three months each year they put the beast to sleep to clean it and repair it.

In this jungle of green, red and orange pipes, under the cold neon lights, nobody, even visitors, ever goes in without a helmet. There is a mixture of fear, love and respect toward the “damn boilers” and the “damn turbines” and “these big old things,” as Dale Thomas calls them. Thomas has been with the plant the longest — 44 years.

Thomas’ friend Charlie Todd, who started in March of 1967, admits he was scared to death because “you never know when the boilers would blow out at you.” It took almost 10 years of learning from the old guys, until he knew he “could handle any situation.”

And Todd’s best friend, Harold Milner, would not admit he was ever scared. He says he did not like midnight shifts when storms would rage and lightning would creep along electric lines inside the plant.

But they all say they love the plant because their friends are there.

Birth of a power plant

When Edison’s magical discovery was less than 25 years old, Columbians were arguing whether to buy the local power plant and make it publicly owned or to allow a private power company to run the plant.

The first water and light plant, which was built on Hinkson Creek around 1893, was privately owned.

On July 1, 1903, the approval of a city-owned plant fell nine votes short of the required simple majority. Residents voted again on Nov. 24, 1903, and, an old report says, “feeling ran high ... much bitterness was displayed against the owners of the plant,” but again the effort fell short.

In February 1904, voters finally approved municipal ownership of the Hinkson Creek plant — a bold move that neighboring towns at first criticized, but that many followed in the decades to come.

In 1911, a new plant built on Business Loop 70 replaced the old Hinkson Creek plant, and over the years it has added additional buildings.

The plant is among the city’s oldest structures. It also symbolizes the passionate arguments for and against growth that Columbia has dealt with for a century. The profits from the plant’s operation paid for the construction of the old municipal building, the fire and police stations, the airport and the old library.

A little fort

Today, from Business Loop 70 East, turn up a narrow street called Edison, and there you are, in front of the gate that opens only for expected visitors.

Press the intercom button, say what you want and your voice will boom in every corner of the plant. A camera’s eye watches you from above the gate.

It used to be that workers could hardly hear each another above the noise of boilers and turbines. If you wanted to get ahold of someone, Thomas says, you had to chase him up or down the steps or holler. In the ’80s, the plant installed an intercom system. And after Sept. 11, the camera was placed above the gate.

The power plant is the only part of the city government now physically closed to Columbia’s residents. While in theory, anybody could walk into City Hall and hold the city manager accountable, the plant is intended to look like a little fort. After Sept. 11, the plant’s management stopped giving tours. Many areas are now closed except to a handful of people.

The Municipal Power Plant is one of the oldest in the country and continues to produce electricity mostly by old-fashioned coal-burning technology.

“We are not even Columbia’s main source of electricity,” Johnsen says.

The city Water and Light Department buys energy from public and private suppliers — such as AmerenUE, the Sikeston power plant, the Associated Electric Cooperative and the Central Electric Power Cooperative.

But don’t give up the veteran for dead. It can generate a maximum of about 86,000 kilowatts, almost 65 percent more than the maximum capacity of the MU Power Plant on Stewart Road.

How it works

In the main building of the plant, there are seven huge boilers over coal beds. As the coal burns, the water heats, turns into steam and runs the turbines, which produce electricity.

To cool the turbines, the water is condensed and goes through pipes to the cooling tower. Added in 1948, this separate white building has funnel-shaped structures on top. When the water is cooled, it circulates back into the main building.

The turbines never stop. Even when the plant is down for its yearly maintenance, a red wheel slowly turns in each of the “exciters.” The “exciters” are the parts where electricity is actually produced. The turbines also have “governors” that determine how fast they rotate.

Thomas says “it blows my mind” that this “little damn thing” would produce that much electricity for the city.

Because the plant is old and uses fairly outdated technology, it has long been cited for environmental concerns. But now it has a “bag house” — what Thomas calls the giant vacuum-cleaner attached to the bottom of the stack, where the coal emissions go to hundreds of bags in compartments. It used to be that the plant only had a “hopper” — a huge valve in the middle of the stack, which would open and close to keep “the heavy stuff” from the emissions, Thomas says.

In the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency pressed the plant to buy new technology that would reduce sulfur emissions. The operation switched to low-sulfur coal from Kentucky.

Although the plant does not violate environmental standards, the EPA Web site shows that it still emits pollutants within the permitted ranges. In 1998, the Missouri Public Interest Research Group ranked the power plant 17th on the list of the biggest polluters in the state.

Healthy competition

Many of the plant workers feel they are on a mission to make electricity cheap for Columbia.

The city has owned the power plant for 99 years, and the original reason behind public ownership — providing cheaper power — was achieved long ago, as rates fell from 15 cents per kilowatt-hour to 5 cents in 1940. Today, the basic residential rate is 6.17 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Thomas says that in Ashland, where he lives, he buys at monopoly prices. “If you got the Ameren, you don’t have no word.”

The boys at the power plant want to have their word.

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