by Shirley Moore and Tom Shiel, Duke Energy
Editor’s note: When I put the Power Plant and Regulations topic on the editorial calendar for this issue, I planned to write an article that details how the latest environmental regulations are changing the generation mix. Duke Energy’s Tom Shiel contacted me a few weeks ago with this article idea, however, and I couldn’t pass it up. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the human side of change and progress. This article about power plants and regulations is a reminder that even good change can be hard, especially for those who are directly affected by it.
Danny Wimberly stood looking out the back door as he reached for the light switch.
As he did, he glanced over his shoulder to the darkened, silent room.
He closed his eyes.
Suddenly the cavernous building bustled with energy. Teammates fed the massive fireboxes, spurring boilers to turn cyclones of finely ground coal into lightning bolts of power as water morphed to steam. Generators screamed to life at the prodding, rocketing electrons through the switchyard and out to the region to feed the power-hungry machinery of progress. The control room monitored the operation’s heartbeat: loud and strong.
Outside, the station softball team practiced for an upcoming game against a rival power crew. Most of the players lived in the modest neighborhood near the plant. Nothing fancy, but warm and comfortable. Everyone knew his or her neighbor. No one was a stranger.
The vitality was palpable. This was Danny’s generation. These were his neighbors. These were the people who helped build this station-who volunteered in their communities. These were the stations upon which the Carolinas relied for economic success. They ran tirelessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing the inexpensive, reliable electricity that would lure textile mills from the Northeast … that would allow the development of a furniture industry unmatched in this part of the country.
This was the generation that was the heart and soul of the Carolinas. Their character and dedication are what made Duke Energy great.
Danny opened his eyes. A feeling of loss overwhelmed him for a moment. It was followed by a sense of understanding.
It was time for a new generation. And new generation.
He turned off the light and locked the door behind him.
These days Danny is regional manager of decommissioning and demolition, overseeing the closing of some of Duke Energy’s outdated coal-fired plants.
Duke has been steadily and methodically tearing down and blasting away outdated plants for years. Since 2011, the company has “retired,” or closed, 10 coal-fired plants, including seven of 14 coal plants in North Carolina: Buck, Cape Fear, Dan River, H. F. Lee, Riverbend, Sutton and Weatherspoon. The company also has retired coal units at Cliffside (North Carolina), Robinson (South Carolina), Beckjord (Ohio) and W.S. Lee (South Carolina). Plans are in the works to retire multiple units at Wabash River (Indian) and two units at Crystal River (Florida).
The Best Thing for People, the Environment and the Company
The gradual shift away from coal is best for the environment, customers and the company, Wimberly said.
“By shifting from coal, the company was able to reduce emissions, allowing us to meet more stringent environmental regulations,” he said. “Plus, these new plants vastly improve performance and megawatt output over the older coal-fired units, and, of course, there’s also the benefit of lower fuel cost for our customers.”
Making Sure Demolition Goes Smoothly
Most everyone believes moving to cleaner, more efficient plants is the right thing to do.
But to make way, the outdated plants must be removed.
That’s Wimberly’s job. He develops shutdown and decommissioning plans to ensure each plant is taken offline safely and made environmentally safe before demolition. Each site is unique and requires plans specific to that site. Demolition also includes implosion plans, developed with the assistance of third-party agencies and corporate groups. Each day, Wimberly travels from one of the five plants he manages to ensure his teams have the tools and resources necessary to perform their tasks safely and without harm to the environment.
Once a site is marked for decommissioning, it’s demolished-torn down or imploded. The team restores the site to ground level, planting grass where the smokestacks and powerhouse once stood. Much of the material (bricks, office equipment, etc.) is recycled for other uses. A team of nearly 60 Duke employees, including many who worked at one or more of the decommissioned plants as young employees, handles the deconstruction and demolition.
“Danny and the many other decommissioning teammates have been integral as Duke Energy transforms the fleet,” said Issa Zarzar, director of the decommissioning and demolition program. “Their deep historical knowledge at these sites has helped us prepare decommissioning plans for each site. We have made great strides in changing the way we generate electricity, and it’s exciting to be a part of the revolution.”
Those same words could have been uttered 40, 50 or 60 years ago, when coal generation began complementing hydro to help meet the fast-growing demand for electricity in the region.
All retired sites-or those slated for retirement-have been a part of the Duke family for decades, even generations. In small, close-knit communities where families have built strong ties to Duke Energy through generations of employment with the company, the stark-looking coal plants have even become local landmarks.
They represent more than an industrial revolution. They are reminders of “the good old days,” a seemingly simpler time when folks conversed face-to-face rather than cell-to-cell.
“The ‘Spoon,’ as us old timers call it, was the first place I worked at in my career some 28 years ago,” said Bill Forster, a project manager in Raleigh, of the old Weatherspoon plant when it was retired. “This was a small plant where everyone was family, and the people were great mentors to me. I will miss the Spoon, and especially the people I have come to know while stationed at the plant.”
Cindi Ross, an engineering technologist in Charlotte, has fond memories of Riverbend.
“When I was a little girl, my dad was sick a lot and not able to do very much,” she said. “But the one thing he loved to do was fish. He would take me with him. One of his favorite places was right there at the Riverbend Steam Station. I knew that when I saw those big stacks, we were close. I will never forget the fun I had with my dad.”
Wimberly recalls his experiences at Cape Fear.
“Like most other power plants, Cape Fear was not a group of individuals but a family who stood by each other at all times,” he said. “When my father was in the hospital for an extended time, the plant folks raised money through a barbecue to help pay for his medical expenses. This is a sign of true friendship that can never be replaced.”
“Goodbye, old friend,” Forster said.
“Thanks, Riverbend, for all the fond memories,” Ross added.
“Memories will remain a part of each site,” Wimberly said. “They are a part of our history as a company.”
Shirley Moore is a North Carolina native and former newspaper reporter. She has worked for Duke Energy since 2008 and currently writes feature articles for the employee portal and external publications.
Tom Shiel is Duke Energy’s corporate editor.