Columbia power plant produces more energy but faces uncertain future

By Laura Latzko

Inside the Columbia Municipal Power Plant, tanks and cylinders resembling hot-water heaters work together to turn grainy pieces of coal into its end product: electricity.

Production of electricity at the plant has been increasing during the past three years as the costs of buying electricity from outside sources has increased. This increase, however, is not likely representative of what will happen in upcoming years. The advancing age of turbines at the plant and potential federal legislation aimed at reducing carbon dioxide, mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions make the plant’s future uncertain.

From 2002 to 2004, the amount of electricity produced in Columbia decreased, but the amount of electricity produced by the plant began to increase in 2005 because of the rising costs of buying power from outside sources. In 2006, the amount of the city’s energy produced by the plant increased to 7 percent, the highest since 1997, and it has continued at about the same rate since then.

Tad Johnsen, superintendent of the power plant, said rising market costs have made the power plant a more economical option. In using the plant, which has already been paid for, the city only has to pay for resources and labor. Johnsen said it costs the city $3 million to $4 million a year to operate the plant.

“I don’t think you can go buy anything cheaper than what we produce on the market,” Johnsen said.

This rise in locally produced electricity isn’t expected to continue because of aging equipment within the facility that might need to be retired in the near future. All four turbines are more than 30 years old. One turbine and one boiler date back to 1956.

There are five retired boilers sitting at the plant now. Johnsen said they are no longer being used because the Clean Air Act imposed air quality standards that made it too expensive to run these machines.

Johnsen said that constant maintenance to the current boilers and turbine keeps them running efficiently despite their age.

“These older units, they are built pretty well,” Johnsen said. “If you take care of them, they can last for a longer time.”

The power plant on Business Loop 70 was completed in 1912 for about $125,000 after voters approved a bond issue to replace than the first power plant on Hinkson Creek that served 61 customers.

Johnsen said the current plant provided the city with 100 percent of its electricity until the mid-1960s, when utility customers began to use more than the plant could provide and the city began buying power from other suppliers.

After nearly 100 years, the plant could be nearing its end because of mounting federal laws. Some of the boilers and turbines might have to be retired by 2015 because of carbon legislation. Although none of these standards have been put in place and many have been struck down, the power plant could still be affected by the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act’s cap and trade system, the Clean Air Interstate and Mercury acts or other laws designed to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.

A Lieberman-Warner Act’s cap and trade system would impose a tax on plants for carbon dioxide emissions. This tax could be as much as $30 per ton of carbon emitted. The goal of this bill was to reduce from 2005 levels the emissions of carbon dioxide gases around the country by 15 percent by 2020 and 70 percent by 2050. The bill was dropped in the U.S. Senate in June 2008, but other cap and trade bills and initiatives are emerging to take its place.

The Clean Air Interstate and Mercury acts also could affect the future of the power plant. These acts aim to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by power plants, including carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. They would put allowances on the amount of emissions that power plants are allowed on all of these gases and would force these facilities to have to obtain new climate control equipment, find new fuel sources or pay for additional allowances.

If the Clean Air Interstate and Mercury acts or similar legislation and a cap and trade system like the Lieberman-Warner bill were passed, two of the older turbines in the plant would most likely have to be retired. Johnsen said these bills would force the plant to be operated more efficiently, which would mean retiring the older coal-fired units.

An Environmental Protection Agency database indicates that carbon emissions have steadily been going up at the power plant since 2005. Emissions increased to more than 134,000 tons in 2007 from 103,407 tons in 2000, an almost 30 percent increase.

Johnsen said that the amount of carbon emissions in Columbia has increased as the amount of energy produced has risen, but the emissions have stayed the same in proportion to the amount of electricity generated.

Jeannie Kozak of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the Columbia plant’s carbon dioxide emissions are average when compared with other power plants in Missouri. In the EPA database from 2006, the power plant fell in the middle of a list of Missouri power plants based on the pounds of carbon dioxide it emitted per Btu. This number better shows how Columbia compares with other plants in the state, Kozak said, because it allows it to be compared with plants of different sizes.

In the American Lung Association’s air quality report, Columbia was found to have cleaner air than other metropolitan areas that are of similar size.

“I would say it’s average,” Kozak said.

There have been efforts at the plant to reduce emissions through the use of an alternative fuel source. The city started to burn waste wood at the plant in 2008 through a coal-firing process, where it is mixed with coal at a 10 percent to 20 percent ratio.

Compared with coal, these mulch-like wood chips, obtained from manufacturing plants in southeast Missouri, do not create a large amount of the city’s energy. Johnsen said the wood chips have helped reduce carbon emissions.

Johnsen said that waste wood complements other sources of energy from the city, including landfill gas and wind power because its cost is competitive with coal and it is dispatchable.

“You don’t have to do anything with it,” Johnsen said of waste wood. “Just chip it up.”

Johnsen and David Patterson, a balancing authority at the plant, said they are unsure how much power the plant will be generating in 10 years.

“As far as generating out of this plant, it is uncertain,” Patterson said. “We will maintain as much as we can for as long as we can. It will be a slow degradation.”

In the future, Patterson said, the plant “may just run in the summer, but it will run.”

Rose Brack-Kaiser/Missourian
David Patterson, Balancing Authority Opperator at the Columbia Municipal Power Plant, sits inside the control room of the power plant Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 30, 2008. The map behind Patterson outlines outputs of energy through out Columbia and nearby towns.

Rose brack-kaiser/Missourian
A key to a wall map inside the control room of the Columbia Municipal Power Plant provides information on power supplied to Columbia and nearby cities.

Superintendent Tad Johnsen explains the role of the turbine in the process of producing electricity at the Municipal Power Plant. The turbines may have to be retired because all are at least 30 years old.