DANVILLE – Sitting in the control room surrounded by multiple computer screens full of numbers and colored indicators, one might think Larry Rainwater works for NASA.
He even communicates with a main office in Houston, but not to keep a space shuttle on course.
Rainwater, a shift technician at Dynegy's Vermilion Power Plant near Newtown, keeps the 194-megawatt, coal-fueled power plant online day after day.
Some days, the stress level can rival putting a man into space.
From one room in the five-story plant, Rainwater oversees the entire electricity-generating process – the intake and burning of the coal, the amount of coal, the temperatures of boilers and steam, the operation of the generators, and on and on.
Any glitch in the numbers on one of his screens, and he's got to figure out the problem and fix it, because Houston, the site of Dynegy's corporate headquarters, needs a certain amount of pre-determined megawatts flowing out of the plant at all times.
"It can be stressful," said Rainwater, who's worked at the Vermilion plant for about 20 of its 50 years.
On Wednesday, the plant had a lunchtime celebration with current and retired employees marking the 50th anniversary of the plant, which employs about 65.
Some retirees took a tour of the plant, which generally is the same now as it was years ago, said Randy O'Keefe, facility production manager.
The same two General Electric turbines from the 1950s still generate the electricity.
But there are some significant changes in safety and technology, such as the fully computerized control room.
Another major change is still being developed on site.
Construction began earlier this year on a new baghouse that will further reduce the plant's emission of mercury and particulate matter. The new system should be online by next summer, O'Keefe said.
The baghouse will remove the mercury at the end of the process, he said.
Through a large duct system, the flue gas emitted after combustion of the coal will flow into a dozen large metal tubes with fabric bags that will collect additional dust, removing mercury, before the waste gases finally travel out the plant's lone smokestack.
Plant manager Bob Kipp said the success of the plant is based on a balance between clean environmental practices and the safe, reliable and cost-efficient generation of electricity.
The baghouse project is Dynegy's first step in statewide efforts to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015. Dynegy's five other coal-fired plants plan the same changes.
Altogether, the company owns nine facilities in Illinois. The rest of its facilities are primarily in the south and east. Dynegy produces and sells electric energy with a capacity of more than 12,800 megawatts of power generated at plants that are fueled by coal, fuel oil and natural gas.
The Vermilion plant has the ability to use natural gas, but coal is more economical. O'Keefe said the plant hauls in about 1,800 to 2,400 tons of coal a day in trucks from a Danville rail transfer station. The low-sulfur coal comes from Wyoming.
O'Keefe, who's worked at various power plants in his 23-year career, said another change over the years has been the industry's attempt to find more uses for byproducts, such as fly ash that's produced during the combustion process. Fly ash can be sold to make concrete.
Other plants in the nation are turning to scrubbers, rather than baghouses, to reduce emissions. Gypsum is a byproduct of the scrubbing process and is sold to make gypsum board, a wallboard used in construction.
O'Keefe said there's more interest now in finding uses for byproducts; otherwise, the plants would have to dump the material in a landfill.
"It just makes sense for everybody," O'Keefe said.