Oak Creek Power Plant
Oak Creek Power Plant sits on a 400-acre land parcel by the shores of Lake Michigan, about 20 miles from downtown Milwaukee. It is a coal-burning facility consisting of four steam-powered turbines (Units 5-8) that can produce a nameplate total of 1,135 megawatts of electricity. The station is operated by We Energies and has been on line since the 1950s. The plant began expansion in 2005 to add two more coal-fired units to its operation and provide power to an additional one million homes. Unit 1 was completed and began commercial operation in February of 2010, and Unit 2 is expected to come on line this year.
Sub-bituminous coal is used to fire the boiler units at the Oak Creek Power Plant. Natural gas is used to start the boilers and the pulverized coal is burned 24 hours a day. Up to 10,000 tons of coal is pulverized and burned at the plant on a typical day, and the furnace temperatures can reach as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The steam produced in the massive boiler units reaches a pressure of 2,400 pounds per square inch. This steam travels inside pipes to the turbine blades, which turn the electromagnetic generators. Over 800,000 gallons of cooling water are taken from Lake Michigan every minute for the purpose of cooling the steam back into liquid; the boiler water is used over and over, while the cooling water is returned to the lake.
About 99 percent of the fly ash produced at the Oak Creek Power Plant is removed by electrostatic precipitators, keeping dangerous pollutants from escaping through the flue chimneys and reaching the atmosphere. A hydraulic scraper machine removes bottom ash from the furnaces and this refuse is deposited at waste sites. The step-up transformers at the power station turn the generated electricity into a current reaching upwards of 230,000V.
Asbestos use at power stations such as the Oak Creek facility was very common until the 1980s. The natural substance known as asbestos is easily mined and processed into boards, tiles, specialty paints and coatings, and was sometimes used in the lining of worker’s clothing for protection against high heat. In older power plants, asbestos fibers eventually broke free and became suspended in the air; workers breathed in the fibers which would settle in the pleural lining of the lungs.
Mesothelioma, asbestosis and other ailments are known to be caused by exposure to asbestos. Much of this material has now been removed from power stations and alternative heat-resistant compounds have replaced it. However, employees that inhaled asbestos in the past are still at risk for developing health complications 20 to 50 years after repeated exposure.