Columbia power plant changing to fit city energy goals

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COLUMBIA - The Municipal Power Plant burned its last coal on Sept. 22. The plant was designed to burn coal, but several units are the end of their lifespan and don't meet the new emissions standards. The plant began operating in 1914, but it will undergo significant changes to continue operation. Columbia Water and Light spokesperson Connie Kacprowicz said the department anticipated changes to the plant in the early 2000s.

“We've been looking at different turbines at the plant, deciding what to do, determining what the condition assessment was as far as their age," Kacprowicz said. 

Kacprowicz said Columbia’s energy efficiency initiative is part of the reason the plant is undergoing changes. In 2004, voters passed the energy mandate before the city council increased the percentages. The ordinance says Columbia must generate 15 percent of its electric sales from renewable sources by 2018. The percentages jump to 25 percent by 2023 and 30 percent by 2029. Kacprowicz said Water and Light is experimenting with several alternatives to coal.

“Our plans at this point are to test out more biomass, which is an approved renewable resource according to Columbia's ordinance,” Kacprowicz said. "But you can't just all of a sudden switch from coal to biomass."

Kacprowicz said the city must either find a biomass that mimics coal or switch out some of the equipment at the plant. The plant was burning small amounts of wood, a type of biomass source, in addition to its coal production.

Christian Johanningmeier, the power production superintendent, said the plant's experience burning wood makes it a good candidate as an alternative energy source. 

“We are looking at converting one of our boilers to 100 percent wood,” Johanningmeier said. "We have lots of years of experience burning the wood and we know that's a good fuel, it's readily available and it seems like it works good for us."

Johanningmeier said the plant could see major structural changes if there isn't a switch to biomass. 

“If we do the conversion to biomass then operations will remain largely the same,” Johanningmeier said. "If we don't do the conversion to biomass, then we'll probably start thinning out the ranks because we don't need as many people."

There are also several regulations forcing the change. The EPA emissions regulations go into effect in 2016. The Cross-State Air Pollution Act (CSAPR) is one of those regulations. It requires states to improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions. The Boiler Act and Coal Combustion Act are other regulations forcing the city to change the plant’s function.

The city will conduct test burns in fall and winter to determine an alternative source for energy. Johanningmeier said the natural gas burner at the Municipal Power Plant is still operating and will not see changes. The city is also using energy from the landfill natural gas burner while it conducts tests at the Municipal Power Plant.

(Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to change the Columbia Water and Light's spokesperson's name.)

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