Technical Tours Open Doors to Engineering Facilities

Find out what's behind closed doors at a power station, a wind technology center, and a landmark dam

6 April 2009

Three short videos recently added to tour places that engineers—and the general public—should find interesting. The technical tours are of the Hoover Dam, which straddles the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona, Teco Energy’s Polk Power Station near Tampa, Fla., and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Wind Technology Center, just south of Boulder, Colo.

The eight-minute Hoover Dam video opens with external shots of the national landmark, including the highway it supports and images displaying the dam’s giant scale from several angles. Viewers get a close-up view of its massive spinning turbines, as well as the release of water that supports the needs of four U.S. states and part of Mexico. Dan McRoberts, guide service coordinator of the Bureau of Reclamation, the water management agency that operates the dam, gives viewers a history lesson. He notes that splitting the Colorado River among the surrounding states and providing water to previously parched places including Phoenix and Los Angeles was the primary motivation for the construction of the dam, completed in 1935. Electric power generation was only an afterthought, he says. But the roughly 2000 megawatts it generates since an upgrade completed in 1993—enough power for 1.1 million homes—is invaluable.

AT THE FOREFRONT Mark Hornick, general manager of the Polk Power Station, is the tour guide on the six-minute video about the coal gasification and combined cycle electric power plant. The 260-MW plant mixes pulverized coal with water to create a slurry that is superheated to form a combustible synthetic gas. This is subsequently burned under a boiler to generate steam that turns a turbine, generating enough electricity for 75 000 homes. Hornick discusses the plant’s efforts to use coal in an environmentally friendly way that includes removing 95 percent of its sulfur before the synthetic gas is burned, reducing the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted. He notes that the sulfur, in the form of sulfuric acid, is sold for industrial use. Although he mentions that the system is capable of extracting 90 percent of the carbon dioxide created in the production of the syngas before it is burned, he makes no mention of what the plant’s operators are doing with it. He notes that there is a saltwater aquifer directly below the power station that has been considered as a storage site where cO2 could be pumped in the future. But when that will happen is unclear. Nor is any mention made of how much cO2 is created or whether it’s being emitted into the air.

In the Wind Technology Center video, senior engineer Jim Johnson shows viewers the four types of wind turbines being tested outdoors there. Turbine outputs range from 50 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts. Research at the center has led to the development of multimegawatt wind turbines that produce electricity at a cost that is starting to compete with conventional energy sources.

Not as technically detailed as the other videos, the five-minute clip had the virtue of being shot quickly. Typically, it takes up to four months to produce a video and get it ready for broadcast, but this one took only about three weeks, according to producer Noel Bryson.

PIGGYBACKED The three videos were shot when film crews took advantage of their proximity to the sites while attending other events. For example, Bryson was in Tampa filming the IEEE Power Engineering Society general meeting for’s Conference Highlights series. Meeting organizers had set up a tour of the coal gasification plant for attendees, and tagged along. “We always scan conference programs in the hope of finding a tour that seems like a good candidate for video,” Bryson says. also chooses subjects based on its viewer surveys. A survey form pops up when a viewer clicks the Feedback link above the screen where the video appears. Members’ interest in coal gasification led to the Polk Power Station video. “Reducing their carbon footprints is a topic IEEE members worry about,” Bryson says. Finding a tour of such a facility on a conference program was a happy accident that allowed the network to get the video on the air earlier than would have otherwise been possible.



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