An inside look at Dickerson plant
Mirant hopes to hold regular open houses after construction finished
The Dickerson Generating Station has been a fixture in the upcounty for 50 years, but for many residents what goes on inside the power plant has remained a mystery.
Mirant, operator of the power plant, hopes to host open houses regularly once it finishes construction on pollution controls by the end of the year, according to spokeswoman Misty Allen.
The project is to bring the plant in compliance with the Maryland Healthy Air Act, which requires coal-burning power plants to bring their nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions in line with new federal standards by 2010.
Power plant representatives held Saturday's event for residents curious about what happens at the station and what its future holds as national attention turns to renewable energy and away from coal, its primary fuel.
"I had never seen the plant except from the outside, and the scale is astounding," said Caroline Taylor, director of Montgomery Countryside Alliance. "We're looking forward to January when they have the scrubbing technology online."
Visitors, wearing hardhats, ear plugs and safety goggles, were led through the plant from the massive spinning turbines where electricity is generating to the pulverizers that grind the coal into a powder before it is put into the furnaces. They visited Mirant's control room, which monitors everything from emissions to energy prices.
Temperatures can reach more than 110 degrees on a hot day on the highest floors of the plant, where a layer of fine coal dust coats exposed surfaces. Visitors were taken to the roof to get a look at other facilities on Mirant's 1,000-acre property — the rails where 8,000 of tons of coal are brought in by train every three days and the channel where water used in the generating process is pumped back into the Potomac River, also a popular training site for kayakers.
The plant has a net capacity of 837 megawatts in the summer, enough to power 837,000 homes, and also produces energy from oil and natural gas.
"A lot of people come in and have no idea what it takes [to produce electricity], just that they turn a switch and a light goes on," said trainer Doug Lewis, who took more than 30 school groups on tours of the plant last year.
Plant workers held a discussion with the roughly 25 attendees after the tour about plant operations and energy issues such as rising demand for electricity and shrinking or static capacity.
"You're going to see more investment in the energy sector now than ever before. No one knows what it's going to be like in 30 years," Allen said. Coal-fired plants are wary of investing in new carbon-sequestering technologies because they are expensive and little is known about what impacts they could have on the environment, she said. "The question is who bears the liability for infrastructure?" Allen said. "That's something that companies are not willing to take the risk on. It'll bankrupt us."
The tour was organized by Chris Kendrick, treasurer of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association.