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Clinch River Plant receives new life as a natural gas plant

by on June 18, 2015
Clinch River Plant, Carbo, Virginia.

(Story by Rachel Hammer and John Shepelwich)

On May 31, Clinch River Plant’s story took a dramatic turn.

It ceased being a three-unit, 705 megawatt (MW) coal-fired plant. It soon will become a two-unit, 484 MW gas-fired plant.

Participants in the May 1956 groundbreaking for Clinch River Plant included G.L. Furr and Philip Sporn, American Gas & Electric/ Appalachian Power; J.P. Routh, Clinchfield Coal; former Virginia Governor John S. Battle; Judge Lester M. Hooker, Virginia State Corporation Commission, Congressman Pat Jennings, 9th Congressional District; and R. H. Smith, Norfolk & Western Railway.

Unit 3, 235 MW with a 1961 in-service date, has retired. The unit had been placed on extended startup status in 2010. Units 1 and 2, also 235 MW each, are being converted to burn natural gas and will begin operation as gas-fired units next year.

Clinch River Plant is located at Carbo, Russell County, Virginia, along the Clinch River. The plant’s first two units were built concurrently with four other plants: Kammer, Sporn, Muskingum River and Breed.

Amid great fanfare

Clinch River Plant’s groundbreaking on May 16, 1956, was both a major event and eventful. More than 2,000 people attended. Their cars and pick-up trucks clogged the only country road and bridge leading to the site. When invited dignitaries, who had lunch together at the local high school, arrived via buses, the vehicles could not negotiate the narrow road.

The bus carrying Philip Sporn, American Gas & Electric president, went off the road and into the ditch. Furious, Sporn jumped from the bus and ran the remaining distance to the event.

The plant was dedicated on Nov. 18, 1958.

The plant was dedicated Nov. 18, 1958. Festivities began with a dinner at Norfolk & Western’s Hotel Roanoke, followed by a special overnight Pullman train ride to the plant site. Some 700 guests attended tours of the plant, N&W’s railroad layout and Clinchfield Coal’s nearby mining and coal preparation facilities.


Clinch River Plant made power generation history in 1960 when it became the first power station to run for a full calendar year with a heat rate below 9,000 Btu/kwh. Heat rate is a measure of efficiency, with a lower heat rate indicating higher efficiency.

Clinch River has been AEP’s most efficient plant 13 different years in its history. Even at age 30, the plant in 1993 was the most efficient plant on the AEP System with a heat rate of 9,293 Btu/kwh.

Leading the way toward Target Zero

Clinch River Plant was a leader in demonstrating that Target Zero is achievable. It was the first plant on the AEP System to work a full year – Aug. 27, 1996, to Aug. 26, 1997, without an OSHA recordable incident. During 1996, the plant operated with an OSHA recordable rate of 1.69.

That same year the plant received the Chairman’s Award, recognizing plant employees for working five years with no disabling injuries (March 1991-96).

In 2006, Clinch River Plant employees, including Michael Witt, third from left and now retired, familiarized local emergency responders with plant operations.

Clinch River Plant employees earned AEP’s prestigious Horizon Award for safety in 1996. Introduced in 1994, AEP presented the Horizon Award each year to the AEP organizational team that best exemplified leadership excellence in reducing employee and public incidents and in improving safety and health overall.

Enhancements and improvements

Clinch River Plant was the first major plant on the AEP System to use cooling towers to help cool steam used in the plant’s processes. It had five mechanical-draft towers. The Unit 3 cooling tower was rebuilt around 1999 following failure of a similar tower at Conesville Plant. At the same time, the tower was converted from a cross-flow to a counter-flow design. The counter-flow design offers better thermal efficiency and would reduce future maintenance costs.

Clinch River Plant was the first major AEP plant to use cooling towers to cool steam. Photo by John Shepelwich.

A number of projects planned to make the plant “ready for the future” concluded in 2009. These included installation of mercury monitoring equipment and selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR) technology to address nitrogen oxide emissions, development of anew coal storage and blending facility, and the beginning of construction of a new landfill for ash storage.

Other plant retrofits included:

  • Electrostatic precipitators to remove fly ash installed in 1975 at a cost of about $25 million;
  •  A sulfur trioxide injection system to enhance precipitator efficiency in 1985 for $1 million; and
  • Continuous emission monitoring systems in 1994 at a cost of $3.1 million.

Clinch River Plant also was an AEP leader in its dealing with the intake and outflow of water from the Clinch River, home to a vareity of aquatic life including endangered mussels. In 1992, the plant introduced an advanced wastewater treatment facility designed to remove metals before they are reintroduced into the river. The plant also was the first AEP facility to add a reverse osmosis unit in 1992 that captures contaminants from water past the intake but before it is introduced into a boiler.

Environmental compliance and recognition

Even though the current changes at the plant are related to environmental compliance, Clinch River has earned recognition for its environmental programs.

In 2011, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s National Partnership for Environmental Priorities program recognized Clinch River for successful reduction of materials containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The plant achieved this distinction by removing transformer/rectifier (T/R) sets. In the plant’s electrostatic precipitators, T/R sets provide the charge required to remove particulates from a unit’s exhaust stream.

Clinch River Plant in the spotlight

Over the years, Clinch River Plant had its moments in the spotlight.

Local law enforcement officials responded when environmental groups blocked access to the plant in 2006.

In July 2006, Clinch River Plant [made headlines ]when members of two environmental groups stopped a coal truck and blocked access to the plant.

Somewhat unfazed by the activity outside the plant gate, the plant remained secured and employees continued normal operation throughout the incident.

In 2011, Clinch River Plant had its [voice heard in Washington]. Plant manager Rick Chafin and Energy Production Superintendent Edwin Shelton had been holding local discussions about proposed environmental regulations and their impact on the plant, its employees and the surrounding community. They caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and traveled to Washington to tell their story to Warner’s staff, also meeting with staff of another senator and a congressman.

Staff members expressed interest in AEP’s approach for harmonizing the regulations and timelines.

Clinch River even had a few minutes of fame in Japan. Late last year, Japanese television network [FUJI visited Clinch River Plant] for a piece on converting from coal to natural gas.

The Clinch River team

Their dedication has characterized the employees who have operated and maintained Clinch River Plant over the years.

Work was done on the rotors in late 2014. Photo by John Shepelwich.

For example, during a routine “over-speed” test on the Unit 1 turbine in 2008, employees heard something that didn’t sound quite right. There was unusual vibration, but not enough to shut down the unit.

Employees decided to take a look. A partial opening of the unit revealed that the turbine had thrown two blades. They considered the options and, with the unit due for a full inspection in just three years, decided to remove the upper half turbine shell to inspect the rotor.

A complete inspection conducted by AEP‘s Central Machine Shop revealed that 40 of 170 stage seven blades in the turbine were cracked. The inspection and blade replacements saved the unit from a potentially damaging and costly repair had it thrown those blades.

Additionally, employee dedication and longevity has always been a Clinch River Plant hallmark.

For example, Chafin is only the ninth person to hold that position over the plant’s 57-year history. At the plant’s [50th anniversary celebration ]event, it was noted that, with current employment of 118, remarkably, only 260 individuals had ever worked at the plant.

The plant’s coal-handling equipment has been retired as part of the conversion to burn natural gas. Photo by John Shepelwich.

A look ahead

AEP announced in 2011 that to meet environmental requirements, two Clinch River units would be [converted to burn natural gas], while the third unit would be retired.

This was identified as the least-cost alternative to meeting customers’ power needs and supporting the local economy while reducing the plant’s emissions.

Activities are under way at units 1 and 2 to install equipment and systems to deliver, handle and burn natural gas. Existing burners were modified. Coal handling and ash-handling equipment, including the coal yard, coal silos, conveyors, coal transport systems and pulverizers, were retired.

Unit 1 will begin natural gas-fired operation in early 2016. Unit 2 will begin operation as a gas-fired unit mid-year.

“The fact that the equipment in a 57 year old plant is in good enough shape to switch fuels from coal to natural gas is a testament to dedicated employees who have taken great pride in maintaining and operating the plant,” concluded Chafin. “Along the way, the employees have been innovators, always looking for ways to do things better, and have always been safety-oriented. It is the ‘family’ of employees working at Clinch River through the years that has made it a great place to work.”

For Clinch River Plant and its employees, it will be a different life. But the plant will have continued life.

From → News From AEP

  1. jrj003 permalink

    A great place to work & learn from a dedicated & professional staff. I count myself as fortunate to have started my career at Clinch River.

  2. I, too, started my 40-year AEP career at Clinch River when that plant was brand new. Many thanks to the experienced plant operators, maintenance crew, engineers and managers who taught me a great deal about power plants. I owe much to them, many now long-gone. Up until then all I knew about the subject was what 1950 textbooks had to offer.

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