By DEREK THOMPSON
Associated Press Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant rises beyond a pile of coal as it churns out electricity in this 2007 file photo in Holcomb. A $3.6 billion project to build two more units at the site was rejected by former Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment Ron Bremby in a decision released Oct. 18. The ruling could have an impact across the country and was hailed as a victory by environmental groups that warn the plants contribute dangerously to global warming.
Photo courtesy Cindy Hertel/Sunflower Shane Donovan, simulator instructor with Sunflower Electric Power Corp., is seen in the simulator room in the Holcomb station plant. Donovan has been with the electric utility for 27 years.
After 27 years on the job, Shane Donovan still likes pushing buttons.
Donovan, a simulator instructor at Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s Holcomb station, worked his way up the ladder over more than two decades to get to where he is today. Donovan helps prepare employees to become plant operators, who help run the ins and outs of the station located about four miles south of Holcomb.
Donovan is stationed in the plant's boiler house, a sprawling 12-story facility filled with a spaghetti-like maze of pipes and high-tech machinery.
"Basically, what we're doing here is we're burning coal to produce electricity," Donovan said.
For the uninitiated, the process of generating electricity for western Kansas and beyond is a daunting and foreign concept. Donovan recognizes that the work being done by the employees at Holcomb station is largely unfamiliar to the general public.
"There's so much going on out here to produce the end result. For instance, there's 200 tons of coal being blown into the boiler every hour. That's a huge explosion going on, and it's being controlled by systems that are monitoring it. You have to know what's happening with your boiler and understand the whole process so you don't destroy the boiler, which is producing the steam for your turbine. Without any one of the turbine, boiler or the generator, we're not going to produce electricity."
Donned in a hard hat and protective eyewear, Donovan regularly works in temperatures higher than 100 degrees. On a hot summer day, temperatures inside the boiler house reach upwards of 130 degrees, he said. Employees in these conditions stay well hydrated, taking frequent breaks to get relief from the heat.
But Donovan gets a respite from the loud, hot conditions of the boiler room floor. His primary workspace is behind a desk, with a view of about two dozen monitors, each lit up with a myriad of colorful charts and instruments that provide visual readouts of the plant's various operations. This is the simulation room, where operators-in-training can learn the various plant functions in a controlled setting, where any mistakes made don't result in any accidents or flashing lights.
The simulation room is a close replica of the control room, which sits adjacent to Donovan's domain. Here, employees maintain the varied operations required in running the plant.
Donovan has served as a simulator instructor since February 2011. He puts his many years of experience as a control-room operator to use, helping guide and train future plant operators.
The training process to get employees ready to become operators is an intense one.
"The training program we have set up for a new operator takes five years," Donovan said, detailing the various training programs.
By the end of the fifth year, they should be qualified to run the control room, he said.
"Through their whole training process, they'll be in the simulator room quite often," he said.
Donovan lives in Holcomb, and originally is from Wyoming, though his family moved around a lot when he was growing up.
Donovan was intrigued by power plants, and eventually went to power plant technology school to learn and satiate his curiosity. After graduating, he found that Sunflower was hiring. So in 1984, Donovan made the move to southwest Kansas.
"I met my wife down here and started raising a family," the father of two said.
Donovan enjoys the hands-on aspects of the power plant's operation.
"For me, I enjoy the power plant — running the power plant. The actual pushing the buttons to make things run. To me, that's fun," Donovan said. "As a simulator instructor, I get to do that every day."
In the control room, there's not a lot of button pushing, he said. Operators watch and monitor systems to ensure that they run well, so there's a limited amount of hands-on interaction. In the simulator, however, Donovan gets to push a lot of buttons.
"With the simulator, we can start the place up every day and shut the place down every day," Donovan said.
The simulator basically is a computer-generated model of Holcomb station, he said. Plant logistics — such as elevation, pipe sizes and materials — and other types of data were compiled into a program to create a virtual rendition of the facility.
"The model actually operates just like the power plant does," Donovan said.
The simulator is new to Holcomb station, having only gone into effect in January. Prior to the implementation of the virtual plant program, supervisors could "talk about it, but never actually got to do it until you had to do. Now, we can talk about how to do it, and actually do it without upsetting the main unit. The knowledge sticks better, and everyone's more comfortable learning the process," the instructor said.
Donovan has high praise for the newly implemented simulator.
"I love it. It's probably one of the best things to happen out here to help with the training," he said. "We've been trying to get it for years, and we've got it now. It's a blessing for the people that are learning how to run the power plant."
All of the knowledge Donovan accumulated as a control room operator made for a smooth transition from operator to simulator instructor.
If and when the planned 895-megawatt expansion goes into operation, Donovan said, he'll have a lot more operators to train. The size of the planned facility wouldn't be much bigger than the current plant, but the energy output would be far greater: about 500 megawatts more, he said.
The Holcomb station expansion gained traction in December 2010 after the Kansas Department of Health and Environment granted Sunflower the necessary air-quality permit to begin construction. However, the estimated $2.8 billion expansion has been put on hold in the face of opposition from special interest groups and federal judges.
Amid an uncertain regulatory environment, Sunflower closely monitors its emissions, and federal emissions requirements are taken to heart, Donovan said.
"We enjoy our clean air just like anybody else," he said.
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