Respecting Coal Power Plants

7 Jan

The other day (Jan. 6) I visited a coal-fired power plant–Merom Station, owned by Hoosier Energy–and I wanted to jot down my initial impressions before they fade.

The purpose of my book, as I’ve come to understand it, is to help make energy visible. And there’s really no better way to see (and smell and hear) energy up close and personal than by touring a coal power station. If you’ve never done this, you probably have only a vague impression of what a power station is, what it looks like, how it works. That was certainly true in my case. I’d always imagined a sort of Soviet-style, drab concrete building with smokestacks spewing thick clouds of debris into the air. And, as it turns out, this is more or less true. The Merom power station, located in southwest Indiana near the border with Illinois, consists of several industrial-looking structures, the most visible of which is an exhaust tower belching white steam.

As we approached the station from the road, I couldn’t take my eyes off the steam. I mean, there it was, the very source of the CO2 and other particles that pollute air and water and probably contribute to global warming. I was surprised to find the image of all that particulate matter bubbling up out of the plant quite beautiful and strange. Even though it’s toxic, it’s still quite a sight.

Now, I knew that power plants are large, but I had no idea how truly massive they are. The Merom station is a medium-sized plant, but it still occupies several thousand acres of land and consumes more than 10,000 tons of coal per day. What I truly wasn’t prepared for was the plant’s innards. I’ll write about this at length in the book, but for now let me just say that walking around the coal burning apparatus of a power plant is like traveling back in time. Especially if, like me, you spend most days in front of a computer, reading and writing, a working power plants seems like something from the Industrial Revolution. It’s dark, and incredibly loud (we had to wear ear plugs), and sooty. There are pipes and tubes and giant machines of all kinds working full blast, 24 hours a day.

In one sense, a power station is a fairly simple device–it burns coal to boil water and make steam that’s used to turn electricity-generating turbines. That’s pretty much it. But it’s also incredibly complex. Each step in the process involves dozens of finely calibrated machines and probably millions (maybe billions) of moving parts.

In short, a power plant is spectacular in the visual sense of the word. To tour one is an overwhelming sensory and intellectual experience.

We all know that burning coal is problematic. Even if you’re skeptical about human-caused global warming, there’s no doubt that coal pollutes the environment in many ways. But I think there’s a tendency to vilify coal and coal-burning plants, to too simply caricature them as evil. And of course it’s not that simple.

That’s my point, I think: that energy–renewable and fossil–is never as simple as it seems. Visit a coal energy plant and, at the very least, you’ll come away impressed by the sheer size of the place and the engineering prowess it takes to keep it running. Coal has been a huge part of the energy paradigm for more than 100 years, and it will continue to play a significant role for the foreseeable future. So instead of condemning it outright, we need to consider not only its problems but also its benefits.

I’ll post pictures from my visit soon.

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