Federal mandates drive Greene County plant’s move from coal to gas

Federal mandates drive Greene County plant’s move from coal to gas
Alabama Power's Plant Greene County has completed its two-year transition from coal to natural gas. (Anna Catherine Roberson/Alabama NewsCenter)

It has been two years of transition for Alabama Power’s Plant Greene County, which reached a historic milestone this month.

Last year the plant celebrated 50 years of serving west Alabama and Alabama Power customers. In January, the plant received its last shipment of coal and burned coal for the last time in March as it moved toward ending the use of its historic fuel source.

This summer, the two-year transition is complete, and Greene County is now operating on natural gas.

The process included significant design, engineering and construction challenges, with specific deadlines, as the plant focused on its goal of complying with federal environmental regulations.

“Environmental mandates were part of the constraints and challenges we faced with this project,” said Riley Wells, plant manager. “But I am proud of the dedication and hard work people put in.”

Jennifer Cassity, compliance manager at the plant, credits that hard work with the successful conversion.

During the project, a large portion of the plant was taken out of service for five months, with up to 500 contract employees working on-site. That compares to a typical scheduled outage that lasts 30 days with fewer than 100 contractors at the plant.

“We pulled this project off with an accelerated time frame, on time, on budget, and safely,” said Cassity. “Typically, when you accelerate a project like this, one of those is going to suffer. It is a true testament to the people that work here.”

The two-year process to convert from coal to gas represents a $45 million reinvestment in the plant, and in the west Alabama community that relies on the Greene County facility for energy and as an economic driver, Wells said.

With the conversion complete, the plant is seeing changes in how it operates. Historically, coal-fired plants tend to run continuously for months, but as a natural gas plant, Greene County will run on a different schedule, depending on need. The plant’s maintenance schedule will also change with natural gas instead of coal.

In order to ensure a smooth transition for operators, Wells said the plant purchased a high-fidelity simulator.

“It mirrors and models the real unit,” Wells explained. “This was important because it gave the operators an opportunity to learn to run the new unit before the gas units were available. It was definitely one of the keys to our success.”

The plant has seen its workforce reduced over the past two years as it moved to an all-gas operation, with the number of employees dropping from 126 in August 2014 to 92 today. The long-term target for staffing is about 65. The reduction of employees was accomplished through attrition and transfers, with no layoffs.

The loss of positions will have some impact on the community, Wells said, but the company is committed to supporting west Alabama and being a part of the community for years to come.

“Greene County is in a good place right now,” Wells said. “Going to natural gas for our steam units, instead of focusing on coal-related environmental regulations, ensures a longer lifespan for the plant and a continued commitment to the west Alabama community.”

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