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Electricity generators doing what it takes

Kentucky’s three power suppliers, which provide 24 distribution co-ops with the electricity that flows to consumer-members, have been busy throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

Solar projects 

Big Rivers Electric Corporation has agreed to purchase power from two solar developers who will build, own and operate their facilities in western Kentucky. 

“Big Rivers is excited to add this renewable energy source to our portfolio for the sole benefit of our member-owners,” says Bob Berry, president and CEO of Big Rivers Electric Corporation. Big Rivers serves three electric cooperatives in western Kentucky: Jackson Purchase Energy Cooperative, Kenergy Corp. and Meade County Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation. 

“This is another example of our commitment to provide safe, reliable and sustainable energy to our members,” Berry says. 

Beginning in early 2023, Community Energy solar arrays in Meade and McCracken counties will provide Big Rivers with up to 100 megawatts (MW) of power. 

“Big Rivers is showing impressive leadership,” says Brent Beerley, president of Community Energy. “Each of Big Rivers’ member-owners will benefit from the long-term, fixed-priced and low-priced electricity these projects will generate.” 

On the Henderson/Webster county line, Geronimo Energy will build a solar array generating 160 MW on nearly 1,700 acres, the largest solar energy project in Kentucky. It will begin generating in early 2024. Both contracts are 20-year agreements. 

“Geronimo looks forward to bringing significant economic benefit—such as new tax revenue, job creation, local spending and charitable funding—that will directly result from Geronimo’s Unbridled Solar Project,” says David Reamer, president of Geronimo Energy. 

Once these power purchase agreements have been approved by the Kentucky Public Service Commission and the United States Rural Utilities Service, Big Rivers Electric will have a diverse, low-cost generation portfolio consisting of coal, natural gas, hydro and solar. 

Wall-crawling robots 

When the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) needed information fast about the condition of the Cumberland Fossil Plant’s Unit 2 boiler in advance of a fall maintenance outage, it turned to robotics. 

“To have a robot crawl on the walls and do accurate readings? Seemed like something out of science fiction,” says TVA System Engineer Matt Beaty. 

Using their strong magnetic bodies, the robots crawl up the 190-foot-tall walls across eight boiler tubes with three different beam angles reading simultaneously—a total of 7 million readings of raw data. In 16 to 18 hours, a robot can determine the thickness of an entire sidewall, which cuts the inspection time significantly. 

A close-up of the wall-crawling robot that uses its strong magnetic body to climb up the boiler wall. Photo: Tennessee Valley Authority

Typically, this kind of inspection is required during a long-term outage using a scaffold infrastructure and a team of boilermakers to manually check the wall for fireside corrosion. It can take up to two weeks and results in only 1,500 readings. 

The robotic inspection saved up to $500,000 in contract labor and material costs, according to TVA. It also identified areas of erosion that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. 

“It’s great to have a non-destructive examination,” says Project Manager Steve Standefer. “Normally, our boilermakers have to grind down the panel surface to do an accurate reading of wall thickness.” 

The work will prepare the boiler for a thermal coating spray during the fall outage, which will make it more corrosion resistant and help prevent the need for costly repairs in the future, according to TVA. 

Working through the pandemic 

When Kentucky enacted health and safety restrictions in March to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, families and businesses across the commonwealth scrambled to adjust. 

The pandemic hit in the midst of East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s (EKPC) planned outage of Unit #1 at the Hugh L. Spurlock Generating Station near Maysville, where hundreds of workers were already tasked with a tight timeline to complete maintenance and upgrades. 

“This outage was already aggressive and packed with major projects,” says Spurlock Plant Manager Joe VonDerHaar. “We had our work cut out for us. Then we had the added impact of COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The new safety protocols required EKPC and its contractors to adapt daily work practices and reconfigure how material and personnel arrived on site. 

The work at Unit #1 is part of a series of projects to ensure the power plant remains in compliance with more stringent environmental rules for years to come. Totaling over $262 million, these projects are aimed at ensuring future compliance with federal regulations related to handling and storage of coal ash and related materials, as well as handling and discharge of water at the plant. 

“The completion of Unit #1 outage is the culmination of over 550,000 man-hours worked over 37 months,” says Senior Engineer Matt Clark, who oversaw the project. 

With the Unit #1 back online as of May 27, EKPC now moves to the Spurlock Unit #2 outage, slated for September. 

“I commend every EKPC employee and contractor who helped us achieve this massive effort in these uncharted waters we had to navigate,” VonDerHaar says.

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