$70 million project brings upgrades to Colstrip plant
Billings Gazette story cites coal generation hurdles
Local 104 member Valentin Litvinenko replaces brass tubing with titanium tubes in a tube sheet, which is part of a condenser.
John Roeber, business manager and secretary treasurer of Boilermakers Local 11, watches as a new economizer panel is lifted into place during a maintenance project at the Colstrip Unit 1.
More than 500 workers busy refurbishing massive boiler in Unit 1
COLSTRIP — Jason Small says a $70 million renovation of Unit 1 of the Colstrip Steam Electric Station translates into steady work for hundreds of people like him.
“If you're a craftsman and a boilermaker, you count on these outages for a primary source of income,” Small said. “The bigger (the project) the better for us. This is our bread and butter.”
Small lives in Kirby, a tiny community south of Busby and just outside the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. His commute is an hour each way, but when roads are slick during the winter, he'll pile on another hour of travel time each way.
All four of the units that make up the massive generating plant must be taken out of commission periodically to perform essential maintenance. The project now under way at Unit 1, Colstrip's oldest, is referred to as an outage or a turnaround. More than 500 workers have been busy refurbishing the inside of the unit's massive boiler, and miles of condenser tubes, piping and other equipment are being repaired or replaced.
The Unit 1 outage began in early March and will wrap up within a few weeks.
Workers described their work as essential to the economy and the state. A recent study by University of Montana economists Patrick Barkey and Paul Polzin concludes that the Colstrip plant accounts for 3,740 jobs and $360 million in personal income for Montanans.
“Without Colstrip, the economy around us would be smaller, less prosperous and less populous,” Barkey and Polzin wrote.
Yet many workers worry that their jobs could be in danger because of environmental regulations and opposition to the coal industry.
“What we do here is very important to the country,” said pipefitter Greg Stewart. “I'm 110 percent pro-union. But if they would take the coal industry away or tax us out of existence, it would devastate many families, and it would devastate Colstrip.”
Last week the Sierra Club launched an effort urging Puget Sound Energy, a part owner in Colstrip, to stop buying electricity from coal-fired power plants. A petition drive urges PSE to end its reliance on electricity derived from coal. Grant Ringel, a spokesman for PSE, said the utility strives for a balanced approach to its energy portfolio. The company has invested more than $1.5 billion in wind capacity, but the affordable electricity generated from coal remains a key component to PSE's portfolio.
“We have no plans to change our relationship with Colstrip,” Ringel said. Because their work is highly specialized, boilermakers, pipefitters and other key workers often must travel long distances to do their jobs. “We're like a big band of gypsies,” Small said.
For Stewart, Colstrip is the latest stop on a winding career that has taken him all over the country.
“I've been doing this for 43 years,” Stewart said. He moved to Colstrip about a year ago, working at the power plant until June 2011. After short stints working in a Billings fabrication shop and doing some refinery work, he returned to Colstrip last October and has worked there since.
“What I know the best is the coal-fired units,” Stewart said. “I was raised in them and chased them all over the country in the ‘70s while the big boom was going on. I worked in California for nine years, but there's no coal fire there. It's all kind of this New Age stuff. But this is what I'm all about.”
Pipefitter Matt Erickson of Miles City says most people don't understand that Colstrip's operator and co-owner, PPL Montana, constantly strives to make the plant run more efficiently.
“I have read some stuff in The [Billings] Gazette, and I think this plant gets a bad rap,” Erickson said. “Per kilowatt hour, this is one of the cleanest plants out there, and I don't think people understand how clean these plants are.” One of the advantages of coal-generated electricity is that it's a steady, reliable source of power, Erickson said. “Wind and solar is good, but it comes and goes. These guys are on line all the time, and it seems like they (PPL) are always tweaking it a little to get them to run a little more efficient.”
Anne Hedges, program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said burning coal to generate electricity has environmental consequences. The Colstrip facility ranks eighth in the nation in greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
“Puget Sound Energy needs to think hard about what the future of the plant is. The liabilities are extensive,” Hedges said.
Nationwide, coal's share of electric generation has fallen by 20 percent in recent years. Competition from cheap natural gas and strict environmental regulations for new coal-fired power plants have eroded coal's dominance in electrical generation, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. Meanwhile, coal producers have boosted exports to power-hungry Asian markets. Tary Hanson, a power cycle engineer and project manager for PPL Montana, is aware of increasing coal exports. Just the same, he prefers to burn coal in the United States because Colstrip’s plants are designed to pollute less and can squeeze more kilowatts out of each pound of coal, he said.
Operating a plant more efficiently not only generates more profits for the company, it’s also better for the environment, he said.
During a tour of the plant, Hanson called attention to long arrays of coiled tubes that are being installed in a piece of equipment known as the economizer. The economizer is a heat exchange device in which hot flue gases are used to preheat water that's eventually turned into steam.
“The new tube design, with these fins, makes it a lot more efficient,” Hanson said.
Unit 1’s boiler is a steel-walled enclosure that's several times larger than a boxcar. When the plant is operating, air and finely powdered coal are blown inside the boiler, where the mixture burns in a hellish, tornado-like vortex.
“This whole wall is getting replaced. You can see where there’s damage from clinkers falling,” Hanson said, pointing to a dented section of the boiler’s ribbed steel wall.
Larry Miller, PPL’s manager of projects at Colstrip, said the efforts of boilermakers, pipefitters and other specialized workers keep the plant running efficiently.
Besides, the economic impacts of the maintenance project reach much wider than Colstrip.
“If you go through our vendor list, you would find many of them are from Billings,” Miller said.