Stop to reflect on any number of experiences in your life, and coal most likely played a silent but essential role in it.
Coal has been the main source of fuel for power plants for as long as we’ve had them. These plants keep the lights on at schools, jobs, homes, weddings, hospitals.
On top of that, they’re really cool to look at.
So I couldn’t turn down a chance to tour one this past weekend in Hampton Township, near Bay City, where Consumers Energy Co. opened the doors of its J.C. Weadock coal-fired generating plant to the public. Named for an early president and lawyer who helped incorporate the company in 1910, the plant has been operating since 1940; it will push out its last kilowatt in April. The utility will shut two other plants next month as well, leaving it with just two coal plants in operation.
I went with my uncle, who is just as easily gripped with fascination by such things. On the bus taking us inside the complex were people whose fathers had worked at the plant. One guy talked about how as a boy he had free rein to run around the place and would go on top of the roof to look out. Others were locals who, despite having looked at this complex their whole lives, were getting their first and only look inside it, just weeks before its final run. These plants are central to everyone’s lives, and yet few of us have ever seen the inside of one.
Of course, they’re also dirty and represent a way of thinking whose time is past due. Within the plant there are eight power-generating units, each with its own turbine. Of those eight, only two are operational, the others having been shut down in 1980 as the country started to get serious about emissions. Our tour guide said, until then, the stacks were allowed to puff out pure black smoke unfettered by any scrubbing technology.
The smell of coal came with the first step inside the place. I couldn’t get enough of it. It smells thoroughly industro-mechanical, like an auto shop or factory does because of all the oils and chemicals. And yet coal is compressed vegetation, not synthetic or refined at all.
Part of this appreciation comes from nostalgia. I briefly worked at a 1950s-era coal power plant near St. Clair during a summer break from college. I worked midnights sweeping coal dust wearing nothing more than one of those paper dust masks found at hardware stores. It was a gothic nightmare of a place and I loved it. It was a terrible job, paying just $6 an hour, but the sights and sounds were mesmerizing. (Nearly all the workers on this crew, I should note, were high on marijuana at all times and spent half the nights in their own personal hiding spots, sleeping on beds made of worker uniforms. The utility fired the contractor company a few weeks after my stint was over.)
The smell took me back, as did the unending pipes, iron control wheels, steel-grating catwalks and just mammoth metal structures everywhere you look. The deeper in you go and the more you feel like you’re inside an engine.
The tour guides, both workers at the place, pointed out eight-story tall bunkers that funnel coal down to pulverizers. The pulverizers grind the coal into the consistency of talcum powder. This powder is what’s burned to produce the steam that turns the energy-generating turbines. This is easy enough to imagine. But the scale of the equipment needed to do it is so large that at any given moment in the plant all you can see is one part of one of the structures that represents just one of these steps. It only takes a day and a half to burn through the eight stories worth of coal in those bunkers.
The guides were kind enough to take us separately from the rest of the tour group down to a lower level where we could see a pulverizer. A huge fan, inside an adjacent structure, sucks the coal dust out of the pulverizer and sends it off to be burned in a furnace. Incredibly, most of the equipment in this place is original. Even big gauges on control panels are still going after 76 years.
Think, all you business owners out there, about the volume of stuff — be it physical or of the information variety — you manage day in and day out. Now think about how the stuff of this plant is brought in by the train carload-full and by freighters longer than most buildings in downtown Detroit are tall. Four trains arrive every week, and it takes 10 hours to unload up to 130 cars. The rail cars are turned upside down by dumpers to empty the coal.
Then it gets pulverized and torched. How cool is that? It’s definitely progress that these great smoky machines are going away. But there’s nothing wrong with gawking at them in wonder in the meantime. If you get the chance, I recommend taking it because they’ll be gone before we know it.
Evidence of this shift could be seen on our way there. I decided the night before to take a more interesting country path across the Thumb to get to Bay City, instead of taking I-75. This had the unplanned benefit of putting us right in the middle of the brand new Cross Winds Energy Park, a wind farm that Consumers put in operation in 2014.
So on the way back, we took a side venture down a dirt road into the middle of a farm to get a closer look at one of the windmills. We were able to get right up to one and could hear the quiet whirring as it generated power, complemented every second or so by the graceful whoosh of a giant blade sweeping over our heads. I lay down on the ground directly underneath to get a full-face view of it and wondered if some kid did something like this in 1942, two years after the Weadock was built, maybe staring up at it from the banks of the Saginaw River running alongside it.
The windmills are so new that the paint still looks perfect. They give the landscape a futuristic look. I imagine a kid in 1942 would have thought the same about the shiny new coal plant in town.
It was all too perfect. Right after experiencing the machinery of one closing era, we happened across a symbol of the next. This isn’t just literary whimsy, either. Consumers is replacing its coal generation with natural gas and renewable energy. It’s planning to buy power from another wind farm set to open in nearby Huron County by the end of this year.
As for the Weadock, it will be dismantled (not imploded, as the DTE Energy Co. plant in Marysville was last November) following asbestos abatement.
Many of the plant’s 49 employees will retire with the plant. Others will take jobs at the company’s D.E. Karn plant in the same complex as the Weadock.