Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nightshift--Power Plant

I truly believe in renewable energy. I have read a fair amount about this subject. The science is there. The technologies are good. There are alternative energies that can be of economic value to America. However something that we all should understand is that America is not going to get to that that Clean Carbon Free Hydrogen Economy without Grid Electrical Power. The energy we need to reach that future must come from somewhere—we are just going to have to burn a little more. This story is about burning coal.

Three hours left of a string of three night shifts. It had been a very long and uneventful night. What we called in the Navy, “Like sailing between the islands of boredom and tedium.” We could hear the rumble of the fire in the boilers and the whine of the turbines-- generating 220 megawatts of electricity-- white noise-- a siren of sleep. Three more hours and we would make it out alive.

We were all in the control room save Aaron. He was out emptying his oil buckets. We sat around quietly talking, trying to stay awake, Tony’s eyes going closed and opening, staying closed a little longer each time. Joe was talking simultaneously about his daughter, his past and present female relationships, why we can’t get enough air in the boiler, Denver Bronco football and his daughter. Frank was listening.

Jim and I were in our regular quiet little discussion about creationism and evolution with me losing to Christianity. No matter how much I told him of the geological evidence, I could not dissuade his deeply held beliefs in a 6,000-year-old earth. God bless America.

The discussion had moved to the division between church and state. I was about ready to quote--as best I could--from a Jefferson letter to those Baptist fellows. Tony’s eyes had been closed for three minutes. Joe had not stopped talking--Frank was still listening. God bless his soul.


Tony’s eyes opened up like a roller blind in a Saturday morning cartoon show and in his Alabama way of saying things, “That’s not very good.”

“What is it?”

“Lost flow on B Feeder.”


“We‘re on our way, boss.”

“So put some fire to it, boys. Jim, we can’t lose more than three megawatts.”

Tony took the fire by the hand and added fuel. “Got all the igniters in, boss.”

“You boys know what you’re doing –I’m going out to the feeder. “
“Remember, no more than three.”

Out at the feeder, the PSO’s-- these Prometheus men-- had an air lance in the feeder’s throat. They were in a shower of coal, the black rain filling their ears and shirt pockets. I had to yell above the staccato rapping of the coal pipe vibrators.

“What we got going? “

“Wet coal.” Frank put a ball of coal in my hand for inspection.

Wet coal. Operating a power plant is hard work-- it’s harder when it rains.

Joe, looking into the feeder, “We got coal back!”

“Let the control room know.”
“You got coal flow back, Tony!”

“Aye, aye. “

Back in the control room, boiler pressure was going up and the drum level was dropping. Tony already had the boiler master backed down and was pulling out fuel. Jim had taught him well. In three minutes he had the boiler back in auto.

“How many megawatts did we lose?”

“Brian! We did not lose a single one-- maybe 300 kilowatts-- if that.”

“Yeah, inertia and some damn good are firing.”

“Yeah, inertia.”

Two hours and 45 minutes left of three long and uneventful night shifts. The sleep we wished for so devoutly will not come so easily now.

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