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From the Roundtable: Coal fuels Columbia—past, present and future

From the Roundtable: Coal fuels Columbia—past, present and future

Al Germond

The first time I flew into Columbia in 1963, one landmark that stuck out in Columbia’s skyline was the Water & Light Department’s power plant on Business Loop 70.
At the time, the electric plant included a series of low-slung buildings of different vintages topped by several stubby smokestacks. On the east side was a pond locals called “Water & Light Lake,” which they’d reminisce about as a one-time location for picnics, swimming and fishing. The “campus” of the Water & Light plant also included a recently constructed 300-foot microwave tower, making it the tallest structure in the city at the time.
I’m innately curious about electricity from long sessions spent with a family of electrical engineers, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that Columbia generated its own power and that the microwave tower represented a fairly recent excursion into the concept of buying electricity from sources outside the Columbia area. (As an engineering necessity, when power is purchased from other systems, the microwave radio link is used to synchronize our generators with the alternating-current power the Water & Light Department was buying from other utilities.)
In 1963, Water & Light was on the cusp of a major expansion at the Business Loop facility, with plans to add more generating capacity and build a 300-foot smokestack. This is about the time serious pollution control entered the picture—as I recall from the fatherly talks about devices such as the Cottrell Electrostatic Precipitator, the concept of which is now celebrating its hundredth anniversary.
It’s easy to forget now how seriously polluted Columbia could be some days. Highly sulfurous bituminous (soft) coal from area mines was burned in the boilers at both the city’s Business Loop plant and the University of Missouri power plant on South 5th Street. While MU’s smokestacks were somewhat taller than the more modest arrangement on the Business Loop, winds often pushed the smoke from both sets of stacks over the city, enveloping some neighborhoods in gritty fumes that were downright nasty—you could taste them—and hardly healthy to breathe.
At the time I was also struck by the comparatively shabby condition of the network of overhead power lines used to convey power to our homes and elsewhere. Downtown was festooned with a thicket of overhead power lines, especially in the alleys, which are about to see new uses. Elsewhere it was not unusual to see frayed insulation draping from overhead wires often supported by rotting poles that obviously needed to be replaced. Public contact with the Water & Light Department was via its office on the first floor of the Howard Municipal Building. 
From my first introduction to municipal power—which some might uncharitably call “socialist”—I’ve witnessed the remarkable growth and modernization of the Water & Light Department. Now the city and its electric utility are on the cusp of another challenge, as the community must prep itself for a more significant investment and construction that will concomitantly increase in the cost of electric power.
Already the community is being called upon to assess its future power needs and consider which path the city should follow to satisfy those requirements. While remaining sensitive to ecological considerations, satisfying our bulimic consumption of electric power will be a major electro-mechanical undertaking that will cost us tens of millions of dollars, financed through the sale of tax-free municipal bonds.
While there’s a strong case for retaining and modernizing the existing plant just to have it around for reasons of security, less than 8 percent of consumption comes from the rotating machinery on the Business Loop. In fact, derived from the physical law that embodies transmission of electrical power over distance, much of the electricity we consume—regardless of whether anyone wants to admit it—actually comes from AmerenUE’s Callaway nuclear plant at Reform.  While there’s talk of studies to assess the possibility of licensing a second unit at Callaway, what I’m hearing now—but can’t confirm—is that the plan to build the second nuclear unit at Reform is rather definite.
Just as microwaves signaled the earliest purchases of power from elsewhere decades ago, Columbia seems poised to continue working with other entities within the “grid,” both investing in and buying power from other generating facilities, often hundreds of miles away.
While there may be much romance in extracting power from the wind, the sun and maybe even piles of rotting rubbish, serious energy flows will continue to come from rotating machines called generators, which are driven by turbines. While one may wish for the elegance of “free” power from a hundred Bagnell Dams, it will be steam driving turbines connected to generators—steam derived from either coal or atomic reactors—that will power this country for a long time to come. And that’s the reality of electrical power generation that we should never lose sight of.
Al Germond is the host of the “Sunday Morning Roundtable” every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on kfru. He can be reached at [email protected].

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