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Tampa Electric planning to convert Big Bend power plant where five died in June from coal to natural gas

Aerial view of the Tampa Electric Big Bend power station. [Luis Santana | Times]
Published Jan. 13, 2018

TAMPA — The parent company of Tampa Electric plans to seek regulatory approval in coming months to convert its Big Bend power plant, the site of an industrial accident that killed five workers last year, from coal to natural gas, a top executive said Friday.

If approved, the full conversion would cost an estimated $1 billion and could take a decade to complete, said Rob Bennett, who led the integration of TECO Energy with Emera after the Canadian company bought TECO in 2016.

Studies and engineering analysis on the conversion have been under way a few years, he said.

"It's a big decision," Bennett told about 50 civic activists and business people at Café con Tampa, a weekly breakfast discussion group focused on politics and public affairs. "It has to work. It has to make sense for 35 or 40 years."

The four coal-fired units at the Big Bend Power Station are the oldest in Tampa Electric's fleet, dating back to the 1970s and '80s.

Three of the four are known as "wet-bottom boilers;" they use water to cool a molten byproduct of burning coal known as slag. That technology is being phased out nationwide, and by 2015 only about 30 of the nation's roughly 800 main electric utilities still had them. Tampa Electric's wet-bottom boilers are the only ones left in Florida, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Bennett said two of the four units would be converted in the next couple of years two what are known as combined cycle natural gas generators, which burn natural gas to generate electricity, then use the waste heat from that initial combustion to generate more power.

The other two existing coal-fired units, which are newer than the first two, would be converted to natural gas over the next five to 10 years, said Bennett, who last month was appointed CEO of a new company, Emera Technologies, created to seek business opportunities and develop technology related to energy transformation.

During a Q&A in which audience questions focused largely on alternative fuels and not at all on the fatal accident, Bennett framed the conversion as a business decision to phase out coal in favor of "much cleaner" natural gas, as opposed to a move being taken for safety reasons.

"The fact is we need the Big Bend power plant, and we need some kind of fossil fuel generation, at least for a period of time until other technologies advance enough so we don't have to depend on fossil fuels," he said.

Big Bend came under fire in 1999, when the Environmental Protection Agency charged that it and a sister plant violated the Clean Air Act. As a result, Tampa Electric had to pay a $3.5 million civil penalty and make major capital upgrades.

The power station still emits carbon dioxide, Bennett said, but most of what comes out of the stacks now is water vapor.

Big Bend wouldn't be the first Tampa Electric plant where coal has been phased out. The company replaced the coal-fired Gannon Power Station with the natural-gas powered H.L. Culbreath Bayside Power Station in 2003. A third plant, Polk Power Station, uses a combination of coal and gas.

Tampa Electric isn't alone in moving toward natural gas. Utilities across the country are shifting away from coal, said Mort Webster, an energy engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University.

"The No. 1 reason is simply cost," Webster said. "The price of gas, since the shale boom, has just plummeted."

Although making the change is ultimately more efficient, he added, it requires a significant capital investment on the front end.

"You are essentially building a new plant inside the shell of the old one," Webster said. "It's not a cheap thing to do."

Emera's internal analysis, he said, shows that converting Big Bend to natural gas is "the most economic and environmentally responsible thing to do," he said. "That's what makes the most sense to us right now — that, and add more solar."

Tampa Electric plans to spend an estimated $858 million over the next couple of years installing 6 million solar panels at at least 10 "very large solar farms" for which the utility has purchased about 5,000 acres, he said. Those panels are expected to produce 600 megawatts of power, or about 7 percent of Tampa Electric's total output. At the end of the project, he said, Tampa Electric will have a higher percentage of its power coming from solar than any other jurisdiction in Florida.

The cost of the solar project to consumers would ramp up at $12 per year over the four years, or about $50 per year more four years from now than what customers' currently pay.

The fatal accident at Big Bend took place June 29 as workers were trying to clean hardened slag from the bottom of a cooling tank. With the generator's boiler still running, a blockage burst, sending thousands of gallons of still-molten slag onto the men below.

Killed were senior plant manager Michael McCort, 60, and four contract workers: Christopher Irvin, 40, and Frank Lee Jones, 55, of Gaffin Industrial Services of Riverview, and Antonio Navarrete, 21, and Amando Perez, of the BRACE Industrial Group, based in Houston.

Gary Marine Jr., a 32-year-old Gaffin employee, was seriously injured, but survived. His stepfather, Jones, was among those killed.

Following the accident, the Tampa Bay Times found that Tampa Electric had experienced a near-identical accident at a different plant in 1997, and wrote guidelines so it wouldn't happen again. Still, the practice continued. Since the accident, Tampa Electric has discontinued it permanently.

FULL STORY: Tampa Electric ignored its own rules in accident that killed 5 workers, OSHA states

In December, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Tampa Electric $126,749 and cited it for a "willful" violation, which is reserved for companies intentionally disregard OSHA rules or act with indifference toward employee safety.

OSHA also fined Tampa Electric $12,675 for failing to provide workers with the proper protective gear and fined Gaffin $21,548 for failing to provide protective gear and for not having proper procedures in place.

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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