The good, the bad and the efficient

Cogenerating the pros and cons of the BWL's new REO Town power plant

Efficient is the word for the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s new $182 million, 100-megawatt power plant in south Lansing’s REO Town, set to go online Monday. Inside its shiny bowels, combined cycle technology will rile up steam and electricity with the same gas flame.

The plant also cogenerates pros and cons at peak efficiency. To get the cycle going, just say the same thing twice: It runs on natural gas. Then again, it runs on natural gas. It’s a big new power plant, right in the middle of the city. Then again ... repeat as needed. 

The pros are considerable: breathtaking (and breathgiving) reductions in pollution, especially mercury, half the carbon emissions of the old Otto E. Eckert power plant a quarter mile to the west, nimble turbines that ramp up or down in minutes and a snazzy brick shell that will double as the BWL’s offices.

On the downside, an unknown percentage of the gas used at the plant will be extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — shoving a chemical-and-water enema deep into Mother Earth to coax out “tight” (hard-to-get) natural gas, with effects to groundwater, earth and air that are only beginning to be catalogued. Add the frustration of submitting to another generation of burners-and-boilers technology, however streamlined and computerized, and you get a full cycle of pros and cons.

It could have been better, but it could have been worse. The city almost got a new $1 billion plant powered primarily by coal, the BWL’s original solution to the aging Eckert plant back in 2008.

Like a smoker told to quit, but who is not quite ready to take the plunge, the city is firing up one last 100-megawatt Camel. But it’s a filtered. 

A load off

At about 9:45 a.m. Monday, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero will move a cursor on a computer screen and send two General Electric LM 6000s — modified $17 million Boeing 757 jet engines — spinning at 60,000 horsepower each. The turbines will zap electricity into the tinkertoy-like switchyard behind the plant at 1203 S. Washington Ave. and out into the city.

At the same time, exhaust from the grounded jets will blast through a big box full of water-filled tubes — the heat recovery steam generator, or hirsig, to power nerds. The water in the hirsig will flash into steam faster than Tom Izzo after a bad foul call. In the winter, that steam will warm the BWL’s 225 downtown customers, or it can whoosh into a “topping” turbine two floors overhead to generate an extra 14 megawatts or so of electricity.

I toured the plant with BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark on a warm June afternoon. On a day like this, Lark explained, the steam would probably go to the topping turbine to meet the load from thousands of air conditioners. 

But something bigger was on Lark’s mind. He couldn’t wait to break out a six-figure number, and it wasn’t his salary.

“By the end of this fall, from that point on, we will burn 375,000 tons less of coal each year,” Lark said. Therein lies the REO Town plant’s biggest appeal.

Already, the four coal-fired steam units at the Moores Park steam plant, next door to the Eckert station, have been put to pasture. Three of the boilers are more than 50 years old and one is 43.

“The plan is, they are done,” Lark said. “I don’t expect them to see service again, ever.”

In addition, Units 1, 2 and 3, the three oldest electricity-generating turbines out of six at the Eckert plant, all 50 years old, will be “close to shutdown” on Monday. They will stay on standby this summer, in case there is a problem with the new REO Town turbines, but after that, Lark said, they “will not see much work again, ever.” Three newer turbines at Eckert will keep working, but they are scheduled to phase out by 2017.

The transition from the Eckert and Moores Park plants to REO Town brings happy numbers for air-breathers and fish-eaters. Mercury emissions, the biggest cause of fish eating advisories in the Great Lakes and inland waters, will be reduced by 99 percent, comparing the seven units at Eckert with their replacements at REO Town. (About 50 percent of the toxic mercury poisoning the Great Lakes region comes from coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.) Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, or “sox and nox,” will go down 90 percent or more. Carbon emissions will be cut by 50 percent. That amounts to a 20 percent reduction across the BWL’s entire carbon footprint, Lark said.

Burning coal also stirs up an unseen rain of fine particles, from acids to metals to dust, which get into the human lungs, heart and bloodstream. A 2011 report prepared for the Michigan Environmental Council traced 180 premature deaths a year in Michigan (and 660 in the Midwest region) to nine old coal-fired plants in the state. The Eckert plant was not included in the study, but it is “comparable” to those that were, according to 5 Lakes Energy consultant Douglas Jester. The study also traced 68,000 asthma attacks and $1.5 billion in health-related damages to the same 9 coal plants in Michigan.

Jester, a former mayor of East Lansing, was among the most vocal opponents of the BWL’s original plan to replace the aging Eckert plant by building a new billion-dollar plant, powered primarily by coal.

Jester said he’s “satisfied” with the BWL’s REO Town solution.

“We should have fewer asthma attacks in the community, somewhat fewer heart attacks,” Jester said. “The new plant is much better than what was proposed and what we have now.”

30 megawatts, please

Compared to the ubiquitous coal dust and shuddering pulverizers at the Eckert plant, the gleaming REO Town plant seems more like a computer rendering of a power plant than a real one.

For a rare and steamy date, take a self-guided tour of the plant during the grand opening on Monday. New power plants don’t come along often. The REO Town plant is the first new utility power plant built in Michigan in 25 years and the first power plant in 40 years, since the Erickson Power Station went online in 1973.

The physics are as old as Robert Fulton’s steam engine, but the technology is 21st century.

At REO Town, Lark will get undreamt-of flexibility in responding to energy supply demand. The turbines at Eckert are old and set in their ways, settling in at about 70 megawatts. Adjusting down to 50 or back again is a tricky matter. Lark said they take 10 hours to start up and each turn of the key costs $4,000 to $7,000 worth of oil.

Not so for the REO plant turbines.

“We’ve already been delivering electricity to the grid off the turbines behind you, and those came up in about 10 minutes,” Lark said, looking like a man who just traded in a 1960 Olds Dynamic 88 for a brand new Cadillac CTX.

Now and then, Lark gets a call for power from the Midwest Independent System Operator, MYSO, the agency that coordinates power delivery in 15 states and one Canadian province.

“We can use 30 megawatts,” they might say, as if borrowing a cup of sugar. Who wants to wait 10 hours for sugar? “All we do is take the cursor to the ‘on’ button and you’ve got your 30 megawatts within 10 minutes,” Lark said. 

The afternoon of my visit, June 13, the auxiliary boiler and one of the turbines were running, but only one man could be seen working on the main floor. A 20-something subcontractor with a laptop was checking a tiny illuminated panel to make sure the valves in Unit 2, the turbine on the north side of the plant, were firing in the right order. He declined to give his name because he wasn’t sure he should be talking to the press, but pride got the better of him and he opened up about his barely-light-blue-collar job.

“I don’t know exactly how things were 50 years ago, because I wasn’t born yet,” he apologized, “but my company has replaced huge panels full of wires [in old power plants] with a little PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) box like this.” His work station was a small table and his tool was a pencil-size stylus. 

The REO Town plant’s third-floor control room will not be a hit on “bring your kid to work day.” In contrast to the Eckert Plant’s steampunk banks of dials and switches, REO Town is controlled from a boring horseshoe of tables where technicians ticky-tick-tick on laptop computers.

The desk jockeys control a highly flexible array of machines. Pete Kramer, a former BWL commissioner and owner’s representative for the REO Town project, said the plant centers on two key elements: two identical and redundant power trains, from the jet-like gas turbines through the “hirsigs,” that provide “fully redundant and sufficient services to power our electric and steam needs for downtown.” An auxiliary boiler (labeled “Victory” after its manufacturer) can kick in if the main units fail.

The two trains join to drive one steam turbine generator. It’s called a 2-by-1 configuration, which Kramer called “the highest level of efficiency you can get in power and steam generation.”

Jester considers the 2-by-1 setup the plant’s most significant asset. “The heat produced from burning the gas is used twice,” he said. “Once to drive turbines to make electricity, and then, after that steam is downgraded a bit, it’s used for heating and cooling the downtown district. That’s a very good thing.”

To support the weight of all that heavy equipment and control vibration, the plant’s floor is a 5-foot-thick slab of concrete sitting on a thousand concrete piles that extend down to stable rock.

Five in one

As Kramer explained it, the REO Town cogeneration project is really five projects in one: the $135 million power plant, the $6.9 million BWL offices adjoining the plant and facing Washington Avenue, the $2.8 million restoration of an old Grand Trunk railroad depot next door, and construction of steam lines and natural gas lines as part of $23.9 million worth of offsite utilities and program management. 

The BWL needed to build close to three hookups: the downtown steam loop, high-voltage electric lines and natural gas lines. The crumbling, castle-like depot, abandoned for 10 years, happened to be on the lot they needed. Fixing it up gave the project an iconic hood ornament of sorts, as well as a magnet for public curiosity. Now restored to its 1903 glory, the depot will be used as conference and meeting rooms for BWL staff and neighborhood groups.

The administrative headquarters on Washington Avenue looks like part of the plant, but it’s a separate building, divided from the plant by two thick walls and several inches of empty space to minimize noise and cushion the front office from an unforeseen catastrophe. By fall, 180 BWL employees will move in, vacating the claustrophobic old headquarters on Haco Drive to the east.

Many design features common to both the plant and the headquarters, including step-up neo-Deco walls and curved window mullions, hark back to the old REO Motor Works that stood just north of the plant for most of the 20th century. The nods to past designers were intentional, Kramer said.

The REO Town plant’s lines follow the handsome industrial design of the mid-20th century, before corrugated metal “pole barns” on the outskirts of town took over the heavy work in most cities. The BWL’s signature plants of that era, the Ottawa Street Power Station and the Eckert plant, were designed to look like urban points of pride, and both were models for REO Town. Kramer’s father, Paul, was a 40-year BWL employee who helped design the Eckert plant. Looking through the cathedral windows at the front of the REO Town plant’s offices, Kramer pointed out that the blocky, pollution-controlling precipitators weren’t always clinging to the Eckert station. “It was masonry and brick, a cool old building made of stable, time-tested materials that is still serving 60 years later,” he said.

Another big side project at REO Town was to route the steam from the plant through 1,500 feet of new pipeline down South Street, across a new bridge over the Grand River to connect with an existing line near the General Motors Grand River Assembly plant.

As owner representative, Kramer coordinated the whole shebang, juggling several major players. The Lansing-based Christman Co. was largely responsible for the power plant, while Granger Construction Co. built inside of the offices and outside of the depot. A Christman subsidiary, Christman Constructors, built the inside of the depot and Clark Construction Co. built the steam lines. About 1,500 people worked on the project in all.

‘You can’t sort the molecules’

King Coal’s throne is looking shakier than ever. The REO Town plant rides a nationwide trend toward natural gas power plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported this year that in 2012, natural gas prices were low enough for a few months for power companies to run natural gas-fired generation plants more economically than coal plants in many areas. During those months, coal and natural gas were nearly tied in providing the largest share of total electricity generation — “something that had never happened before,” the report noted.

Natural gas is often touted as the “bridge fuel” that will help the nation wean itself from coal into the era of cheap wind, solar and other renewable sources. In President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, he declared that the nation was sitting on a century’s supply of gas, but estimates fluctuate wildly. Nobody knows what’s down there, and what technologies may emerge to wring out what’s left. 

The main driver of the natural gas boom is a decades-old process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking:” cracking open layers of deep rock by injecting chemicals mixed with water to eke out oil or natural gas. As of 2010, about 60 percent of new oil and gas wells in the U.S. used fracking.

Fracking has been a supply-side godsend to some, a dangerous deal with the devil to others. Studies on the health and even the seismic consequences of fracking are only beginning to catch up with an unexpected boom that has turned gas into a cheap and plentiful fuel. Hundreds of different chemicals are used in fracking, and some have been linked to cancer by a growing body of studies.

From the 2010 documentary film “Gasland” to David Letterman’s viral “we’re screwed” anti-fracking rant last month, concerns over threats to groundwater, methane emissions and even earthquakes have seeped from the environmental community into the public consciousness.

Unfortunately, you can’t go to a boutique vendor and get responsibly extracted gas, the way you can buy pesticide-free tomatoes or free-range chicken.

“You can’t sort the molecules,” Jester said. “You’re stuck with what’s available in the pipeline. They are all interconnected and you don’t get a direct delivery.”

“If you’re opposed to fracking, there’s no frack-free gas,” Lark said. “We at the BWL simply sign up to buy natural gas and we get whatever comes our way. Some of it may or may not be fracked. There’s no way to do it any other way.”

Lark said fracking rules have to be worked out by individual states or the federal government. Jester agreed.

“It’s a public policy issue,” Jester said. “It’s very hard to do at the level of an individual plant.” France outlawed fracking in 2011, citing concern over contamination of groundwater and leaks of heat-trapping methane. 

“The unconventional fracking we’re getting into clearly poses more risk than fracking did in the past,” Michigan Environmental Council policy director James Clift said. In the 2008-09 debate over the BWL’s proposed coal-fired plant, Clift was the point person for the opposition.

The Michigan Environmental Council has been lobbying the legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder for stronger industry regulations. Clift said the administration has been receptive, the Legislature less so.

“Natural gas results in the emission of less carbon, but you’ve got to look closely at the extraction and transmission of the natural gas,” Clift said. “You’re going to lose those benefits if you’re not tightly controlling all points along the process.”

The gas market, like its constituent molecules, doesn’t recognize state boundaries. Jester said only about 20 percent of the gas consumed in Michigan comes from inside the state, and that figure wouldn’t budge much “even if we were extremely aggressive about producing.” 

Clift said gas is still cleaner than coal and represents an “incremental step” of progress. The REO Town gas plant is expected to last about 30 years, but Lark said new turbines could be dropped into the plant, much like dropping a new engine block into your car, if the old ones wear out.

Clift can be excused for feeling a wave of déjà vu. In February 2009, as community debate in Lansing over the proposed coal plant was at full heat, he made the rounds with a “Plan B” at the Westside Community Center and other forums.

“Plan B” called for beefed-up energy efficiency and conservation programs and more aggressive pursuit of renewable energy, the once and future Holy Grails of fossil fuel opponents. But Clift also recognized that more juice was needed to replace the aging Eckert units and back up the fickle renewables. Clift’s Plan B called for gas turbines to do that job.

Clift said that with the REO Town plant set to go online, the BWL is “getting close” to his Plan B, but isn’t there yet. 

“We’re looking for further commitment to renewable energy and further energy efficiency and demand reduction programs,” Clift said. Putting solar panels on top of a gas-fired power plant — as Lark said the BWL plans to do at REO Town — isn’t enough. “We want to see Eckert close completely,” Cift said.

Down the line, the BWL’s 159-megawatt Erickson plant in Delta Township, built in 1973, runs primarily on coal and won’t last forever.

“So you need to keep moving forward,” Clift said. “Don’t rest just because you have a natural gas plant up and running.”

“Eye candy of the Week,” our look at some of the nicer properties in Lansing that rotates with Eyesore of the Week, will return next week. If you have a suggestion, please e-mail or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.


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