By Jim McCarty
Power plants are a lot like most other things, they require more care as they grow older. To ensure power plants do the job of generating electricity efficiently and cleanly, frequent maintenance must become more routine.
We are fortunate that our power supplier, Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc., (AECI) owns two large power plants, along with the federal hydroelectric generating resources. Together, these work horses are capable of generating 2,353 megawatts and are the cheapest and most reliable source of power for our members.
Maintenance at both power plants has stepped up because they are the most valuable assets owned by AECI. Costs are rising, partly due to escalating costs in the material marketplace. On the other hand, they are worth more and more every day because the ability to generate with coal is so attractive compared to generating with gas.
Across the county, the price of electricity is on the rise. And one significant reason for this is the cost of maintaining this aging fleet of power plants. Because the cost for wholesale power makes up about 70 percent of the expenses for electric cooperatives, anything that adds to generation expense will show up eventually on the bills member pay.
Duane Highley, director of power production at AECI says there is a pattern between maintenance and reliability. “If you don’t spend enough on maintenance, your reliability goes down.”
AECI is currently making investments costing millions of dollars for maintenance, including materials and labor, both of which are on the rise.
Years ago when a utility took a coal plant off line for repairs, it could purchase power from another utility for just a little more than it cost to generate power, since most of the surplus also came form coal. But in the 1990s, utilities built power plants that instead used natural gas rather than coal. So now, energy purchases from the market, are bought from natural gas plants, and it the cost is much, much higher. This in turn makes the value of the coal units increase tremendously, as well as the importance of maintenance.
While a new much-needed power plant is in the works, it will take until 2013 to 2014 before it can be brought on line. So employees at the cooperative power plants work hard to keep these plants operating properly and efficiently, and more environmentally friendly every day; and they get better at it every day. And the costly improvements and maintenance being done today will benefit members for years to come.