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Tale of 2 coal plants: 4 decades of coal generation on the Kanawha

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Tale of 2 coal plants: 4 decades of coal generation on the Kanawha

S&P Global MarketIntelligence recently visited two of American Electric Power's coal-fired powerplants. One was the 609-MW JohnW. Turk Jr. UPC plant in Arkansas, a modern ultra-supercritical advancedcoal plant that started operating about four years ago. The other is the2,900-MW John E. Amos plant that went online in 1971 — more than four decadesbefore Turk. This article focuses on the Amos plant.

Both plants, in verydifferent ways, continue to convert coal into electricity while navigating thecomplexities of state and federal clean-air regulations.

This article focuseson the Amos plant. To read the companion article about the Turk plant,click here.

Given all the talk about the purported end of coal-firedgeneration in the U.S., one might think workers at a plant with more than fourdecades of service might be a little nervous, but at 'sJohn E. Amosstation, the coal is still burning.

"Hopefully, as we play along well with others — theU.S. EPA and the [West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection] — thisplant currently is destined to run to about 2040," said Jon Webb, whoworks as an environmental lab supervisor at Amos. "When you get down tothe end of the line, it will be a 70-year facility."

Cooling towers at the John E. Amos coal plant on the Kanawha River in Putnam County, W.Va.

Photo: Sarah Smith

While the plant was engineered and constructed decades ago,the economics of itspower production still work. Earlier this year, AEP said it was diversifying its resource base, but Amos andother fossil fuel plants will continue to operate under a 10-year forecastingwindow in the company's latest integratedresource plan.

Amos plays a key part in Appalachian Power Co.'s latest West Virginia andVirginia integrated resource plans. Appalachian Power, one of AEP's regulatedutility subsidiaries, took full ownership of the power plant in late 2013,acquiring unit 3 from sister utility OhioPower Co.

The largest coal plant in AEP's system, Amos was firstbrought into operation in 1971. With more than 2,900 MW of operating capacity,the plant has a massive footprint with 900-foot stacks looming over the KanawhaRiver. The plant was named for WestVirginia Sen. Robert Byrd's first campaign manager, who also served as aDemocratic National committeeman.

While some states have actively promoted a shift away fromcoal, West Virginia has long shown largely bipartisan political and regulatorydeference to supporting the coal industry, and the Amos plant has played a rolein that history. For example, after the U.S. EPA proposed potential newgreenhouse gas emissions rules in 2012, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., staged apress conference at the plant, where he vowed to oppose the regulations.

"This powerplant, where we are standing here today, is living proof that energy belongs toall of us, regardless of party labels," Manchin said.

Coal to power

SNL Energy fuel contract data shows the plant burnedapproximately 6.2 million tons of coal in 2015. Some of the major suppliersproviding coal to Amos in 2016 include MurrayEnergy Corp., the VirginiaConservation Legacy Fund Inc., coal magnateand gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice's Kentucky Fuel Corp., Alpha Natural ResourcesInc. and BlackhawkMining LLC.

A control room used to monitor operations at the John E. Amos power plant in Putnam County, W.Va.

Photo: Sarah Smith

Coal moving to Amos travels primarily by river barge, butalso by rail. Once the fuel reaches the plant, Amos' pulverizers grind the coalinto a fine powder that is blown into a 25-story-tall boiler. The coal and airis ignited and burned at temperatures over 3,000 degrees.

The boiler is lined with tubes of purified water that createsteam under tremendous pressure. The steam turns the blades of a turbineattached to a generator that spins an electromagnet in a coil of copper wire 60times per second.

"You think about the old science project turning insideof a magnet? It's right there," Webb said, pointing to a disassembledgenerator that was temporarily offline.

After the power is generated, the voltage is increased bytransformers before it is pushed onto the electricity grid.

"When you turn on a light, the electricity you're usingwas a lump of coal only moments ago," a video detailing the processes atthe plant summarizes.

That process creates a number of byproducts, including heat,sulfur dioxide and other materials. The heat is dissipated through50-story-high cooling towers that can easily fit a baseball field in their base.

Emissions generated at Amos from burning coal are cleansedof nearly all sulfur dioxide and particulate matter as they are pushed throughenvironmental controls.

A selective catalytic reduction system, or SCR, uses ammoniagas to create a chemical reaction that converts nitrogen oxide into nitrogenand water to remove nitrogen oxides linked to acid rain. The plant also uses awet flue gas desulfurization, or FGD, system to remove sulfur dioxide fromgases emitted from burning coal.

Webb said one of his concerns as the government seeks tolimit carbon dioxide emissions in response to climate change is that newenvironmental controls are not cheap or easy to install. Instead, he said, itcan take years of design and construction to retrofit a plant to comply withnew clean-air rules.

"People think that you pull [an emissions controlsystem] off the shelf," Webb said. "You buy it, you install it andoff it runs. It actually takes a lot of engineering and conceptual ideas."

Lowering costs

Much of the coal delivered to the John E. Amos power plant arrives by barge and is unloaded to the plant's stockpile.

Photo: Sarah Smith 

With so much competition coming from natural gas in recentyears, coal plants have had to scrounge around for cost savings to staycompetitive. Webb said a recent efficiency tuning at Amos increased thenameplate capacity of the plant by 30 MW.

"That's a big deal," he said.

Amos is also taking delivery of much more coal from riverbarges, as opposed to rail, which is cheaper and can be less complicated tomanage. Most of the coal coming to Amos originates from one of the Appalachiabasins. Webb estimated that about 75% of the coal comes from Central Appalachia.

When the coal arrives, it is unloaded by a process that oncetook 45 minutes per barge. Now, with upgraded off-loading facilities, the sameprocess takes roughly five minutes.

"The towboat is actually able to get another barge inplace and ready to go while the barge is being unloaded, whereas before you hadto wait until it was completely unloaded and then move the empty around, thenmove another full one into place," AEP spokesman Phil Moye said.

The cost-saving move was lauded by AEP Chairman, Presidentand CEO NicholasAkins in an August 2014 earnings call. He said the $6 million upgrade project led to a$10 million per year reduction in costs.

The initiative is one of many "lean activities" thathave been touted as a way to keep Amos and other coal-fired power plants costcompetitive. Other cost-cutting moves have ranged from mobilizing weldingmaterials to washing and reusing flagging vests the company had been discarding.

With a focus on economics and improving the bottom line, AEPhopes Amos will continue to play a role in the nation's power production inyears to come.

"Even with the Clean Power Plan … coal still is part of[the EPA's] overall plan," said Webb, who expressed concern that thisdetail is being drowned out in the contentious debate over clean-airregulations. "Even on [the EPA's] own website, they talk about coal-firedgeneration still being 30% of the [fuel mix]. … Coal is going to be a necessarypart of electric generation, even in the future, 15 to 20 years down the road."

SNL Energy is an offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence.