By Russ Corey Staff Writer
BARTON — Four of the five coal-fired units at the Colbert Fossil Plant continue to produce power more than a year after the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it would shut down the 60-plus-year-old facility.
One by one, those units will be taken offline in April 2016, never to produce power again, said Kenny Mullinax, TVA’s vice president of transitional coal.
“At the present time, there are no plans to do anything else with it,” he said. “After April 2016, we have no intention of ever starting those units, so they would ultimately go into retirement status.”
Once the plant is initially mothballed, Mullinax said, TVA’s long-term plans involve transforming the plant into a brownfield.
At present, TVA spokeswoman Christine Shattuck-Cooper said, the plant’s four units are in continuous operation and producing slightly more than 750 megawatts. Unit 5 was idled in 2013, she said.
In November 2013, TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson said closing the Colbert Fossil Plant would allow TVA to focus on cleaner energy and bring additional, necessary balance to its energy profile. The decision was also looked at as a way to diversify TVA’s power generating capabilities.
Mullinax said it was also an economic decision based on Environmental Protection Agency regulations for coal-burning power plants.
“It would be too expensive to put the clean air controls on that asset,” Mullinax said. “It is not being shut down because it is not a reliable plant. It’s still a reliable plant.”
There were 154 employees at the plant when the November 2013 closing announcement was made, and Mullinax said employees now number in the 130s.
“The morale at the Colbert plant is excellent,” he said. “They understand that this is a mission the company has set for them.”
Mullinax said TVA is “transparent with its employees.”
“We make certain they know everything we know about their future,” he said.
There are employees who have worked at the fossil plant for 30 years and others who will be eligible for retirement once the plant is idled. Some employees will be offered opportunities elsewhere within the TVA system.
Shattuck-Cooper said fossil plant employees went an entire fiscal year without a recordable injury or a first-aid injury.
“As a matter of fact, it has been 20 months since there was a safety incident at the plant,” she said.
Mullinax said beginning around the first week of April 2016, the remaining four units will be taken offline one by one. Each unit is fueled by burning coal that heats water to create steam that runs the turbines. The turbine powers a generator that creates electricity.
When the time comes to idle a unit, no more coal will be fed into the furnace and it will stop producing steam. The generator is then disconnected from the electrical grid, Mullinax said.
He said as the time to idle the units nears, the coal stock at the facility will be drawn down so as little coal as possible remains once the plant is shut down. Mullinax said the plant normally keeps a 30-day supply of coal on hand.
Any remaining coal will be transported off site, he said.
“The goal will be to burn it,” Mullinax said. “That would be the most economical thing to do.”
He said there are eight combustion turbines that produce power from natural gas on the site.
“They’re not running right now,” Mullinax said. “A combustion turbine is a very large airplane engine.”
He said the units are expensive to operate and are designed to provide additional power capacity.
“Those will remain at the plant and will be a part of the capacity portfolio in the future,” Mullinax said. “They will not run on a regular basis.”
Shattuck-Cooper said the combustion turbines will remain a part of TVA’s portfolio even after the fossil plant is shut down.
“These units are designed to start quickly and typically are operated only during peak demand periods,” she said.
Once the coal-fired units are idled and the plant is shut down, a skeleton crew will remain at the plant for about a year to ensure it remains in regulatory compliance.
“We still have all our permits, and there has to be certain inspections done until we get into full retirement status,” Mullinax said.
Colbert County Commission Chairman Rex Burleson said he had hoped TVA could keep the plant open.
“I hate to see it close,” Burleson said. “I don’t know of any way to stop it. I hate to see us lose all the jobs.”
He said he would like to meet with TVA to discuss ways to utilize the plant and its office space or the dock facilities on the Tennessee River. He said the dock facilities could be an asset to the county, depending on what shape they’re in and how much their upkeep would cost.
“I’d still like to sit down with them to learn what they intend to do with the plant,” Burleson said. “I would like to see them make some kind of arrangement where we could use that port.”
Shattuck-Cooper said construction of the fossil plant began in 1951 and the last unit was completed in 1965. The combustion turbine facility opened in 1972.
In 2013, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said TVA’s ideal portfolio would consist of a power generation mix of 40 percent nuclear, 20 percent coal, 20 percent gas and 20 percent hydroelectric and other renewable energy resources, like wind and solar power.
In fiscal 2013, coal accounted for 38 percent of TVA’s energy portfolio while natural gas represented 8 percent.
David Whiteside, founder and executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said shutting down the TVA Colbert Fossil Plant is great news for the public health of the citizens of the Tennessee Valley.
“Coal is our nation’s dirtiest energy source, from coal mining to burning to disposing of coal waste.” Whiteside said. “Coal-fired power plants are responsible for nearly half of all of toxic water-pollution in the United States, dumping more poisons into our waters than the next nine most polluting industries combined.”
Shifting from coal, an antiquated and dangerous energy source, will greatly improve the region’s water and air, he said.
“Alabama and Tennessee deserve energy from more modern and cleaner sources, including renewable energy which continues to improve,” Whiteside said. “This is a significant victory for Tennessee Riverkeeper and the good citizens of the Tennessee River Valley.”
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com. Follow on Twitter @TD_RussCorey.