City faces tough decisions on energy

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 | 5:39 p.m. CDT; updated 11:53 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
The smoke tower of the Columbia Municipal Power Plant rises above the roof of the plant on Tuesday, August 21, 2007 in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Dave Patterson opens the hatch to one of two coal furnaces at Columbia’s Municipal Power Plant to reveal a cauldron of fire that could only conjure images of hell. Fire rushed over a bed of glowing red-orange coals toward a series of black pipes positioned vertically along the far wall. The pipes are filled with water that the heat converts to steam that is then used to drive turbines that generate electricity.

Minutes later, Patterson’s guided tour of the power plant heads outside, and Patterson points to piles of black coal shipped into town on Columbia Terminal’s rail line.


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“There’s the black gold,” said Patterson, a balancing officer at the plant.

For decades, coal and the furnaces that burn it have been the primary source of the power that lights and electrifies Columbia. One of the furnaces was built in 1956, the other in 1965. But it’s becoming clear that something will have to change soon. More stringent clean-air rules from the federal government, increasing energy costs and the rising demand for power have the city looking ahead to determine how it will meet future energy needs.

That’s why the city has hired Burns and McDonnell, an engineering, architecture and consulting firm based in Kansas City, to develop an “integrated resource plan.” That means the firm will assess the city’s potential energy use over the next 20 years and recommend how Columbia might meet the demand. The city will pay Burns and McDonnell $200,000; the study should be done by the beginning of next year.

While coal undoubtedly will retain a prominent role in the city’s energy portfolio, it’s clear that something will have to be done about the aging coal furnaces. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule, or CAIR, aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the two primary pollutants from coal-fired plants. The second phase of the rule is scheduled to take effect in 2015 and will force the city to change the way it uses coal in order to meet the new standards. CAIR also targets mercury emissions for the first time.

“It’s just too expensive to try to rehab them, “ Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said of the coal-fired units. The city’s options include buying emissions credits that would allow them to exceed EPA standards, rebuilding the units or building new coal furnaces that would burn much more cleanly.

Black and Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company, in Kansas City, recommended last year that the city explore the construction of “circulating fluidized beds” that can burn coal with other biofuels such as walnut shells and vegetable matter. The technology keeps burning temperatures below the threshold where nitrogen oxides form. It also allows the introduction of other substances that can capture 95 percent of sulfur before it is emitted.

Columbia isn’t alone in its search for power options. Many American cities are examining how to establish new energy portfolios in the face of aging power plants, rising energy costs and increased concern for the environment.

But Tad Johnsen, superintendent of the Columbia power plant, said there’s no easy fix.

“There’s always an environmental cost,” he said. “The EPA’s rules keep going up and up.”

Kacprowicz anticipates Burns and McDonnell will exceed recommendations for producing and buying power to ensure the city meets future demand. She fully expects conservation — and a call for Columbians to rethink the way they use energy — to be a big part of its proposal.

Columbia’s appetite for power is growing in an age of computers, video games, big-screen TVs and DVD players. Energy consumption per household rose nearly 30 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to data from the Water and Light Department. That trend will have to change, Kacprowicz said.

“I think you are going to see energy efficiency playing more of a role in people’s lives.”

The public will have a voice in deciding Columbia’s energy future. A four-person Power Supply Task Force appointed by the council earlier this month will work with the Water and Light Advisory Board to conduct a series of hearings and town hall meetings on the subject.

“We just need lots of additional power,” said David Wollershiem, a member of the task force and a former long-time member of the Water and Light Advisory Board. He said he applied for a seat on the task force because he wanted a role in deciding Columbia’s energy future.

“Significant decisions will be made in the next couple of years,” he said.

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