Prairie State and its adjacent underground mine begin generating reliable inexpensive power
By Lee Buchsbaum, Associate Editor and Photographer
On November 2, Unit No. 2 of the Prairie State Energy Campus (PSEC), a 1,600-megawatt power plant located in southern Illinois, went live, producing commercial power for its nine owners and their 2.5 million customers. The second part of the largest coal-fired power plant to be built since 1982, Unit No. 2 is now fully under the control of the PSEC team, a significant milestone. The following day, all of the power was scheduled and dispatched for the use by its municipal and electric cooperative owners, customers and members, from Missouri to West Virginia.
More than a decade ago, the project was initiated by Peabody Energy, the original owner of the coal reserves PSEC currently mines and burns. Reportedly championed by then Peabody CEO Irl Englehardt, the corporate board envisioned the construction of at least three similar mine mouth plants: Prairie State in southern Illinois, the Thoroughbred project in western Kentucky, and the smaller Mustang facility in New Mexico. Thoroughbred was to have been as big as PSEC but that project has been put on hold though Peabody still retains those Muhlenberg County, Ky., reserves.
After years of legal wrangling and lots of red tape, Bechtel Corp. began construction of the power plant in 2007. Construction took almost five years and the first boiler began generating power in June 2012. Five months later, the second unit went online. The cost of the facility, including the on-site coal mine supplying the plant and a new high-voltage transmission line was more than $5 billion—the single largest private investment in southern Illinois’ history and one of the largest investments ever in Illinois coal.
Designed as the new face of coal, PSEC is a combined underground coal mine and power plant project built on the same campus, adjacent to each other, and functioning as one symbiotically connected unit. The mine, owned by PSEC, accesses more than 30-years of Herrin No. 6 seam coal which, after being cut from the face underground, is conveyed to the power plant and often burned within eight to 12 hours after harvest. The coal itself is wholly controlled by the PSEC owners, all of which are municipalities, the same entities that also own the power plant itself.
Located in Washington County, Ill., an hour south of St. Louis, PSEC invested more than $1 billion in environmental emissions control equipment, allowing it to meet and exceed the newest U.S. EPA and state regulations. During peak construction, PSEC employed more than 4,000 union tradesmen and women paying more than $1billion in wages, and, once the project reaches full maturity, it will employ more than 550 permanent employees.
PSEC supplies eight municipal power systems with low cost, reliable energy. American Municipal Power-Ohio Inc. (AMP), based in Columbus, is one of six wholesalers involved in the project. Cleveland Public Power and 67 other municipal power systems supplied by AMP have signed 50-year contracts to buy a portion of their power from the plant. In addition to AMP, other partners in the power plant include the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, the Indiana Municipal Power Agency, the Kentucky Municipal Power Agency, the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency, Prairie Power Inc. and Southern Illinois Power Cooperative. PSEC owners are the above eight Midwestern public power agencies and rural electric cooperatives as well as Peabody Energy. Public power and electric cooperatives are operated by local government boards to provide communities with reliable, responsible, not-for-profit power. The vision of its nine municipal and power company owners was a desire to use domestic energy resources to provide stable and competitively-priced power to their customers.
Since all of the Illinois reserves are all owned by PSEC, all of PSEC’s municipal power company owners and other stakeholders own the fuel itself. Peabody Energy currently maintains only a 5% ownership stake. Though many in the industry are still confused about the ownership structure, it should be noted that Peabody does not run the mine or own the equipment. PSEC personnel manage the mine and, though there are some veterans sprinkled throughout management and staff who at one time did work for Peabody, all are now PSEC employees. The PSEC room-and-pillar mine is scheduled to produce more than 7 million raw tons of coal annually.
Across the highway, the power plant contains two super critical boilers designed to run cleaner and more efficiently than existing power plants. According to the latest figures, PSEC’s environmental operating characteristics will allow the units to perform in the top 6% of coal-fired power plants in the nation, making it one of the cleanest power plants ever constructed. The actual operating performance to date of PSEC’s air quality control system puts PSEC in the top 2% of coal-fired power plants in the nation for NOx removal, and top 10% of coal-fired power plants for SOx removal.
While the plant does have rail service to receive limestone and other components, it has no other fuel handling options other than taking coal from the adjacent mine. By not needing any “transportation assistance” from a rail carrier, PSEC is able to keep its fuel costs extremely low (Recent studies suggest rail rates over the last decade are responsible for up to a 50% cost increase for as delivered coal). Historically, Illinois has had several mine-mouth power plants, though this mode of generation went out of favor following the implementation of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the switch to lower sulfur western coals. But now with installed scrubbers, Illinois coal is back in vogue and, perhaps, PSEC’s model will be replicated both in the Midwest and other coal producing regions.
Following recent tuning and performance testing, PSEC has determined that the power plant will actually exceed its rated capacity of 1,600 mw and be more efficient, and therefore cost lower to operate and be even friendlier to the environment. Both units have been tested and are being scheduled at higher than their nameplate capabilities of 800 mw per unit; Unit No. 1 at 812 mw and Unit No. 2 in excess of 809 mw. Performance testing also indicates that both units are operating more efficiently, approximately 1% better than guaranteed.
Recently, PSEC began sending its coal combustion residuals (CCRs) to the adjacent Near-Field holding facility, which also significantly reduces operating costs by eliminating more expensive haulage. The higher output capability, better efficiency and lower operating costs associated with the Near-Field facility further support PSEC as being one of the lowest dispatch cost coal units in the U.S. fleet providing PSEC’s owners with a financially sound and sustainable investment for their member communities for the next 30-plus years.
Inside the power plant, the control room is state-of-the-art and uses the best technology available. Down below in the mine, “we have a trial run going on of Lockheed Martin’s cutting-edge Through-the-Earth communications technology that is being tested and developed here,” said Peter DeQuattro, president and CEO, PSEC. “But what’s really special here are our people. We built a new training center and we have 150 of our workforce going through an annual refresher course right now.” PSEC emphasizes maintaining excellent communications with its employees because they see themselves as building a staff for a 30-year cycle. “We want our folks to be engaged. The low cost model that we are using is cutting edge and with our other advanced emissions and environmental controls, we are the future of coal,” said DeQuattro.
The PSEC plant required more than 20 million man-hours to construct. “We operate on our own merits without subsidies. As one of, if not the largest single private investment in southern Illinois’ history, and one of the largest in the history of the entire state, this power project will stand on its own two feet,” said DeQuattro, proudly.
PSEC operates nine separate continuous miner units underground. “All we do is put the coal on a belt underground and it’s shipped within moments to the plant. After it’s mined, it may be burned within six to eight hours. If they are running at a full 1,600 mw, they can burn a full shift’s production in eight hours. So we are constantly producing as much as possible to enable a large stockpile to be maintained and to give the plant all it needs to run comfortably,” said Paul Krivokuca, senior vice president, PSEC.
PSEC continuous miner super-sections each operate within split “fish-tail” ventilation. They also have three roofbolters on every section. Two of those units are Roof Rangers, and one is a walk through bolter with both angle and truss bolt capability. PSEC uses virtually all JoyGlobal equipment except for in the rubber-tired fleet. The feeder-breakers, ram cars and belt structure is all JoyGlobal or JoyGlobal-affiliated equipment. “The investment with JoyGlobal was more than $160 million,” said Krivokuca.
PSEC has installed a mesh roof throughout the mine, especially along the mains and places designed to be traversed for the next 15 to 30 years. “We are meshing throughout and evaluating our roof as we go forward. We anticipate in the northern part of the mine that we will have more of a sandstone roof, making the top stronger, so we can do less meshing there in time. Production-wise, the ultimate goal for us is 6.5 million to 7 million raw tons per year. The higher the quality of product we give them, the better. We’re budgeted for only 12-in. out of seam dilution, with the goal being to send the highest Btu product we can. We take very little reject out of the raw coal breaker. Optimally the calorific value is around 8,700 Btu/lb. We’re currently producing between 8,500 to 8,700 Btu/lb with 11% to 14% moisture levels, 25% ash, relatively low sulfur and no chlorine,” said Krivokuca.
“The fuel component is the real key to the success of this project. We know we are a model for the future. Our intention is that we don’t just want to be Illinois Basin class, but world class. We’re putting the components and the workforce in place to ensure that. This is not just another mine, but a project that really shows the vitality and long term opportunities for us to be an energy independent nation that uses the resources we already have domestically,” said Krivokuca.
A Mission of Reliability
Because of the nature of their relationship with the power plant, as sole source supplier, the mine is “challenged to build a reliability centered maintenance and performance program. We cannot simply always be in the process of reacting, but must be proactive so we’re able to improve our circumstances, and ensure that bad things don’t become issues,” said Aaron Jackson, underground operations manager, PSEC.
To ensure that a small series of odd vibrations on a unit do not lead to a worse situation, PSEC is participating in a comprehensive data monitoring and collecting initiative with JoyGlobal. To help facilitate the project, PSEC hired Tom Grogan, a reliability expert who worked in mines in Pennsylvania and then worked for FedEx, to be the mine’s maintenance manager.
There are two components to the data study. One is a Life Cycle Management program. For this, PSEC has partnered with JoyGlobal to track the life of the mine’s machinery from initial purchase, through the rebuild process and into the replacement process. PSEC is also participating in a second program called Smart Services. A service that JoyGlobal instituted in South Africa, “JoyGlobal is now continuously collecting data from our continuous mining machines, yielding a real time time-study, gathering motor currents, sumping speeds, cutting rates, the times it takes to change from place to place, and other data that the machine can tell you in real time,” said Grogan.
JoyGlobal has a group in Mt. Vernon, Ill., that basically sits in a control room and “watches our machines run. They are looking for trends, but also errors, warnings, and anything that a machine might be signaling that could lead to adverse operations down the road. They call back to us and inform us before there is a problem. They are looking at oil levels, hydraulics and monitoring to see if there is enough pressure—that indicates wear. They are trending this data too. They can determine if they are starting to see unusual changes in currents, or something on a motor that might indicate an imminent engine breakdown. Long term, these trend determinations help us to understand how a particular machine is running, what’s normal for it, what isn’t and what we need to look at. Short term, we always know how well the machine is currently functioning and if our crews are running them properly,” said Grogan.
“We partnered with JoyGlobal because we’re a stand alone mine. This relationship gives us a partner to broaden out how we are doing and how we can evaluate that performance against others in the industry. That helps us with reliability excellence. Though we can’t benchmark with any other internal organization or mine, through JoyGlobal’s study we can work with other companies and partners. That allows us to evaluate how we’re working against other mines in an effort to review our performance,” said Krivokuca. “We’re among the first in the Illinois Basin to do this. It’s part of our mandate to be on the cutting edge of technology and data services.”
“With JoyGlobal’s worldwide knowledge of product history, we can work with them to better understand our machines. There are trends in equipment that we can look for and those trends then help us ensure productivity. Finding useful information and correlating data is vital to what we do,” said Grogan.
Beyond equipment monitoring, PSEC emphasizes rigorous training for each member of the crew. Given how new mine operation is, the average experience level for each crewmember is only two years. About 20% of PSEC’s workforce are “greenhats.” Stage two will be to train them into more experienced white hats. “We believe the key to the business underground is getting the right employees. We’re trying to hire for the life of the mine, 30 plus years. And we are still ramping up,” said Krivokuca. At press time, PSEC was still hiring and looking for additional experienced employees as it crews up beyond 200 employees.
To help train the new crew, PSEC has initiated a partnership with Illinois Eastern Community College. “They have spearheaded some of our activities and training. Over the years, they have hired ex-MSHA inspectors to train their students. We like this because we participate in a core safety program with the National Mining Association. Zero citations are our goal. We believe we can get there, and be at 50% of the industry average for incident rate and zero lost time hours,” said Krivokuca.
“We have also hired a maintenance trainer on staff. He’s an experienced miner with many, many years of maintenance knowledge under his belt. He goes with younger guys to show them shortcuts and tricks, what they need to do to take care of a job. Understanding correct electrical controls is something we’re really emphasizing given the necessary safety requirements. We’re also now working on hydraulics too,” said Jackson.
In addition to its high standards of training, a large percentage of the new workforce is trained as EMTs as well as coal miners. “In January, we’ll have another 40 EMTs on staff. That’s one in six. If someone needs attention, we have the best possible people available for them. All of our control room operators are EMTs so they can communicate to an outside source and help coordinate emergency services with the mine,” said Krivokuca.
The mine control room itself provides state-of-the-art, 24 hour coverage and “is the brain of the whole operation,” said Jackson.
PSEC currently fields one mine rescue team at the moment, but “our intentions are to have two functioning teams at the competitive level. Following the Illinois Coal Institute’s competition, we saw that our first team was in a better than mid-range state. As we progress, our mine safety component is moving along quickly,” said Krivokuca.
Setting an Example
Now that PSEC is up and running, it will come under increased environmental scrutiny. “We worked very successfully with the president’s first term administration and we look forward to what’s ahead. Additionally, we’ve enjoyed a great relationship with our Congres-sional leadership like Senator Dick Durbin and other state, federal and local leaders and agencies,” said Ashlie Keener Kuehn, director of government affairs and public relations, PSEC.
With such an unusual cost and ownership structure, PSEC early on determined that the entire structure of the plant and mine would be cutting edge. Though not an IGCC power plant, the combination of various state-of-the-art emissions control equipment is unusual and new. “We installed virtually the very best in everything that is available. You look at other power plants, and many are now retrofitting those components, but PSEC has been there from the beginning. We’re designed to be ahead of the curve, including with emissions standards that look to be on the drawing board in D.C. We feel confident we have invested wisely in coal,” said Kuehn.
Unlike many other mines and power plants, PSEC is, for the most part, visitor friendly. “We’ve taken over 1,000 visitors underground this year alone. When they come out of the mine, they have a completely different perception of mining. When they come out, their minds have changed. And that’s part of our job as well, to change the perception about the possibilities for clean coal,” said Krivokuca.