The pulverizers, each full of a dozen 300-pound steel spheres, grind the strawberry-sized lumps of rock into powder, Alan Dugan explains. “It’s kind of loud,” he shouts.
The pulverizers scream like muffled buzz saws, filling the whole of the ground floor room with a steady background din. Every few minutes you’ll hear a notification over the loudspeakers, about as decipherable as an adult in a Peanuts’ cartoon.
Dugan wears a hard hat, serious safety goggles and a neatly trimmed goatee one shade lighter than his gray hoodie. This ground-floor room is dark, alternately hot and cold, full of silvers, tans and yellows. The walls and equipment are peppered with knobs and wheels.
Below your feet is smooth concrete; above your head are miles upon miles of pipes shuttling water and air to and fro. The pulverizers, thick like sequoias, are not smooth cylinders, they are segmented, held together by hundreds of beefy bolts and nuts. Tubes at the top of the pulverizer bring coal chunks in, and pressure forces powdered coal up and out through tubes to the unseen boilers above.
Look over your shoulder and through the open bay door. You can see the tall metal stanchions of the transmission area where electricity is gathered and sent out along power lines to Converse County and Americans in six states.
For Alan Dugan, Dave Johnston Power Plant’s Director of Engineering, the iconic Glenrock facility has been a constant for most of his life. He’s been at the plant 34 years.
“I remember touring this, and I was in grade school,” Dugan, who grew up in Douglas and graduated from the University of Wyoming, says. “At the time it was just amazing to me; never even dreamed I would work here.”
Creating energy brings Dugan, and many Dave Johnston employees, a sense of great pride.
“Thinking back on those 34 years, there’s probably not a lot of things I would have enjoyed doing this much,” he says. “I got to spend 17 years being an environmental engineer when that whole concept was just changing day-to-day and it was fun.”
Dave Johnston Plant Director Jim Bolinger is a second-generation power man. He moved to Wyoming and Glenrock as a kid in 1968 and started working in the industry in Douglas 28 years ago.
“I wouldn’t even think of doing something different,” Bolinger said. “It’s extremely rewarding and humbling all in the same emotion. I am humbled daily by the simple generosity of the group that works here.”
IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
On a cold, wet morning, the Dave Johnston Power Plant bears some resemblance to an old steamboat, bedecked in lights and with the tops of its stacks made shadowy by fog. It almost appears to sit on water, floating atop the North Platte River. A buffer of camel-brown sagebrush and grassland sits between the Platte and Tank Farm Road as you drive to the front gate. Security clears you, you follow the driveway down the hill, creep over the river at the mandated 10 mph and look for a parking spot. Up close, you realize how tall the plant is: The highest points of the boilers rise 20 stories.
After Alan explains the pulverization process you leave the ground floor and take the steps up two levels. Dave Johnston’s third floor is bright and spacious. The ground floor isn’t cramped by any means, but the third floor – where the generators live – feels like a long, thin airplane hangar. A loud hum fills your ears as you pass each of the generators.
The turbines and generators, evenly spaced along the length of the room, are covered from view by long cream-colored casings. A built-in crane stands at the far end of the room, ready to glide along tracks in the floor and lift the casing off if a turbine or generator needs service.
The 180-foot-tall Unit 4 boiler stands next to its generator. The whole of the boiler is invisible, obscured by blue-green steel beams, fat pipes and insulation. You can’t see the pulverized coal burning in the boiler, heating steam to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit at pressures that reach 2,400 psi. The processes that create the steam, which spins heavy blades that run the generator and make electricity, are hidden.
The sheer amount of power generated at the plant is astounding. When online, the generator of Unit 4 alone can produce 330 megawatts; 3 is good for 220 MW and Units 1 and 2 produce 100 MW a piece. For comparison, the Pioneer Wind Park and the Top of the World Wind Farm each generate fewer than 100 megawatts.
Barring the need for repairs, the circular, steam-powered process never stops.
“That’s the advantage we have over wind,” Dugan says. “It just keeps going.”
Steam flows from high-pressure to low-pressure turbines, and is then re-heated before heading back to the boiler.
“We’re trying to use every ounce of energy out of that steam,” Dugan explains.
DAVE J SAVED THE DAY
The early 1950s weren’t kind to Glenrock. The oil refineries shut down and the future looked bleak.
“The community was dying,” Dugan said, noting that Glenrock residents lobbied to bring the plant to town. “It was Glenrock searching for a way to continue to live.”
Glenrock presented an ideal power plant location. The new plant would have an abundant coal resource on its doorstep, and access to a river. Today, the plant uses between 4.5 and 5 million gallons of river water per day, and while the plant’s coal supply isn’t quite as close as it used to be up until 2000, all of the facility’s daily coal supply, 135 train cars worth, comes from the nearby Powder River Basin.
When it was built, Dave Johnston was the biggest power plant in Wyoming, though it has since been surpassed. The plant has changed since its construction in the ‘50s, gaining three additional units, with new generators coming in ’60, ’64 and ’72 respectively.
There have been myriad changes in order to make the plant more environmentally friendly, too. Not all the units are equipped with the same features, but today the plant has methods of filtering out particulates and sulfur dioxide. There are low-oxygen oxide burners, spray-dry absorbers and electrostatic precipitators. The facility also employs mercury collection and ash removal techniques.
“It’s very important to the area, it’s important to the state, it’s important to us to maintain our jobs, especially with the big push recently for renewables,” Dugan said of the environmentally-conscious changes.
When Dugan started at the plant as an entry-level engineer in 1984, the plant’s environmental program was in its infancy. Compliance measures have gotten progressively stronger over the years.
“It evolves, and things haven’t gotten easier in that evolution,” he said.
Employment has changed significantly since Dugan started as well. He recalls the days when the plant carried well over 300 employees. Today, the plant employs a bit less than 200 people, approximately a third each from Glenrock, Douglas and Casper. That split used to skew more toward Glenrock. Dugan estimates that three quarters of Dave Johnston workers were Herders back in the ‘80s.
Dave Johnston is scheduled for deactivation in less than a decade, which weighs heavily on the minds of some community members.
“It would be pretty horrific if the plant wasn’t here,” Dugan said.
The control room is calm and quiet after the buzz of pulverizers and turbines. The space is dimly lit, glowing with computer screens. From this room, control operators have remarkable power over the finer workings of the plant. The control room looks a bit like a military lair in a spy movie, but the operators are relaxed. No one’s yelling or running around, everything seems to be running smoothly.
You leave the control room and visit the offices, the normality of which seems slightly incongruous at a coal-fired power plant. Jim Bolinger’s office is comfortable, with a table and large windows.
Bolinger doesn’t dance around the fact that the national discussion revolving around coal takes a toll on those in the industry.
“I’ll just be frank, it’s brutal,” Bolinger says.“Everybody’s in fear of it (the plant) closing and going away.”
The rise of renewables, especially wind, poses a threat to coal. Dugan and Bolinger both feel that the depiction of wind power in the media tends to be unfair and misleading, especially when the topic comes around to cost. They maintain coal is cheaper when you factor in government subsidies.
Bolinger said he believes renewables are an important part of an energy portfolio for the sake of the environment and consumers. At the same time he doesn’t want coal to become obsolete.
“I would hate to see us become 100 percent dependent on renewables,” he says.
Every day Bolinger comes to work in a facility with a scheduled closure date, but he doesn’t think Dave Johnston is destined for retirement as soon as everyone thinks.
“Internally, in my heart, I don’t believe it,” Bolinger says. “I don’t see it happening.”
There’s a chance that a dramatic change to Dave Johnston could extend the life of the plant beyond 2027. Dugan acknowledged that a Dave Johnston burner could be outfitted with a carbon capture unit. Captured carbon can then be stored underground or used by oil and gas operators for tertiary oil recovery.
Essentially, the carbon captured at the power plant would be used to extract oil from plays that were tapped out through conventional means – that carbon allows oil companies to extract some of the large amounts of oil that are currently trapped. Surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure, Dave Johnson is well positioned.
“That would help the longevity, because obviously nobody’s going to invest in a plant if it’s going to shut down real soon,” Dugan says. “It’s something we’re exploring.”
Bolinger points out that PacifiCorp’s existence as a public utility complicates the situation.
“Every dime that we spend here is your money, it’s my money, the ratepayer,” he says. “So when we look at things like that, where we’re hopeful that it will give more life, we have to make sure it benefits all our customers.”
One individual close to the process says the addition of a carbon capture unit is “going to happen.”
For now, the coal trains will keep rumbling in, the plant will continue business as usual, and employees will take pride in what they do, providing for the community.
“This facility is the lowest-cost producer of electricity in (PacifiCorp’s) thermal fleet,” Dugan says. “We’ve worked hard to obtain and maintain that . . . I’m very proud of what we do.”