Coal Power, Up Close and Personal

Every day when I sit down to work on my book about renewable energy, I try to keep in mind my central premise: that energy is, for most people, largely invisible, and that a main purpose of the book is to make energy visible.

To that end, I’ve been visiting places like university labs where scientists are working on biofuels, and a large geothermal project at Ball State University. But in terms of making energy visible, of seeing energy in action, nothing so far compares to a recent visit I made to the Merom Generating Station–a 1000 MW coal-powered power plant on the border of Indiana and Illinois.

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I’ve posted a fairly detailed note about my visit on my other blog, Renewable, and posted some pictures from the trip. So here I’ll just leave a few quick impressions and post a question or two.

What struck me most about the plant was its size and power. And by “power” I don’t mean the amount of megawatts it produces, which is a more or less arbitrary figure. By “power” I mean the sense you get of an immense machine working at full throttle, producing something very hot and raw and vital.

A coal power plant is a fairly simple device. Coal–lots and lots of it–is ground into a fine dust that is then blown into a giant, 10-story tall boiler, inside of which a giant fireball topping out at around 2000 degrees F vaporizes waters in tubes to create steam. The steam is focused and channeled through a system of pipes and valves that keep the turbines spinning (there are two of them, each about 50 feel long).

And that’s pretty much it. But, of course, making the process work involves thousands and thousands of moving parts. And each of those parts has to be kept in perfect working order. Every valve has to be monitored around the clock. So although the basic process of generating electricity from coal is farily straightforward, the machines that make it happen are finely calibrated and complex.

Walking around inside a coal power plant, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size and industry of the place. And, as a first-time visitor, it’s almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the noise. It’s loud inside a coal power station–loud enough to require earplugs. And it’s dark and gloomy. And sooty.

So I came away feeling sort of overwhelmed. Because on the one hand, as we all know, coal power plants are part of the problem. They spew millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. And even with advanced scrubbing technology, the steam billowing from the plant’s tower still contains toxins that pollute land, water, and air. But the plant also provides reliable electricity for tens of thousands of people living in rural southwest Indiana. And at the moment, there’s no alterative power source available. (Although northern Indiana has decent wind resources, the southern part of the state does not.)

My point is that having now seen a power station from the inside, I have a better sense of what it takes to produce electricity, of the concentrated firepower it takes to make power on a mass scale. When I flick on the lights at home or plug in the laptop I’m using right now, there’s no noise, no bother. But now I have a better understanding of just what it takes to make electricity instantly available around the clock.

 

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