Big Rivers, a Henderson, Kentucky-based generation and transmission co-op, delivered that upbeat message to the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) in September, saying Wilson’s fortunes essentially have reversed since the co-op lost a sizeable chunk of its load when Century Aluminum’s Sebree aluminum smelter left its system and switched to the wholesale power market in early 2014.

At the time, Wilson appeared destined for an “indefinite” idling, similar to the fate of Big Rivers’ 444-megawatt Coleman coal plant, also in western Kentucky. Coleman, located on the Ohio River near Hawesville in Hancock County, was taken offline in early May mainly because Century also moved its Hawesville aluminum smelter to the wholesale market last year.

In the September filing, Big Rivers told the PSC that recent replacement power sales bode well for Wilson’s continued operation. The co-op had alerted the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a grid operator based in Carmel, Indiana, that Wilson likely would be idled by January 1, 2016. But that no longer is expected to happen.

“It is Big Rivers’ expectation given current market conditions that Wilson station will not be idled at that time,” said Lindsey Barron, Big Rivers’ vice president of engineering services. “Big Rivers anticipates that Wilson station will be economic to operate for many years to come, adding value to our members as projected in our load concentration analysis and mitigation plan.”

Big Rivers spokeswoman Sharla Austin-Darnell added, “Market prices are strong and we’re more optimistic now” about Wilson. “We’ve had some very good outcomes and we’re feeling very optimistic about Wilson’s future.”

Since it was built for about $750 million along the Green River near Matanzas in Ohio County in the mid-1980s, Wilson has provided a reliable market for more than 1 million tons of steam coal annually, with much of that business going to regional producers whose high-sulfur coal can be burned in the scrubbed baseload plant.

Coleman, meanwhile, is not necessarily closed for good. In fact, the co-op continues to project an idling of a few years, with Coleman eventually returning to service. If and when it does, it is likely to continue to burn coal.
In response to a question from the PSC, Barron indicated it would not be easy or inexpensive to convert Coleman to burn natural gas.

“Much work would have to be done to convert Coleman station to natural gas,” she said. “An engineering firm would most likely be hired to study, determine and design the best option for a fuel switch to natural gas. Generally speaking, the availability of an appropriate gas supply would need to be determined, and if one is not available, the cost of providing an appropriate gas supply.”

Next, she continued, “the technical considerations like burner modifications, impacts on boiler design and capacity, changes to fans, ductwork, fluework and other equipment design issues will be evaluated. Finally, the environmental impacts and financial considerations will be evaluated,” and a new acid rain permit would be needed from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.