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Kentucky Power remembers Big Sandy Power Plant as transition to natural gas begins

by on June 19, 2015
Big Sandy Unit 2 is among units at nine American Electric Power coal-fired power plants to stop producing electricity this year to comply with new environmental regulations. Unit 1 will be converted to run on natural gas.

(Story by Allison Barker)

LOUISA, Ky. – May 13, 2015, is a day Johnny Adkins won’t soon forget. It was his last shift as an operator on Unit 2 at the Big Sandy Power Plant.

“I was playing ‘The Dance’ by Garth Brooks because it was me and ol’ girl making our last dance,” Adkins said. “An hour and a half after I left her that day, she was tired of dancing and hasn’t danced since. We tried to hold on until the end of May so we could run the coal out of the bunkers but she couldn’t hold on. She was done.”

Big Sandy Unit 2 is among units at nine American Electric Power coal-fired power plants to stop producing electricity this year to comply with new environmental regulations. Most officially retired May 31. Together, the coal units in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia generated 5,588 megawatts (MW). While many of those plants will close completely, Big Sandy will remain open, and Unit 1 will be converted to run on natural gas.

Honoring the closure of Big Sandy Unit 2 and hailing the conversion of Unit 1 was the reason for a celebration at the Eastern Kentucky plant in June.

“I have mixed emotions,” said a teary-eyed Kutrina May, who has worked in the plant’s storeroom for 33 years. “It’s sad to see all of this stop. We can continue on with the gas but it’s just not going to be the same. All these people are leaving. I don’t do well with goodbyes. It’s mixed emotions because I loved working here. I’ll get to stay so that’s a good thing but it will be different.”

Leonard Compton spent 33 years at Big Sandy before retiring in 1995 as a senior control technician, and was happy to be back for the celebration.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that Unit 2 is closing,” said Compton, 82. “I had a good life working here, a blessed life.”

Big Sandy has a long history of serving the needs of Eastern Kentucky. When Big Sandy’s 260-MW Unit 1 went online in 1963, its cooling tower was the first natural-draft cooling tower in the Western Hemisphere. Once it is converted to burn natural gas, Unit 1 will have a generation capacity of approximately 268 MW.

Unit 2, which went online in 1969, was the first in a series of five 800-MW units installed on the AEP System in a four-year period. Over the years, Big Sandy has not only produced low-cost electricity for the region, it also has contributed greatly to the local payroll. In 2013, both units together accounted for $9.2 million in annual payroll and $1.4 million in payroll taxes, plus millions more in property taxes.

Greg Pauley, Kentucky Power president and chief operating officer, recalled the Kentucky Public Service Commission questioned the need for an 800-MW unit.

“They challenged us as to why we needed a unit that could generate that much power,” Pauley said. “Well, we’ve shown why, and our employees have done a fantastic job over the years. Big Sandy was a significant accomplishment for Kentucky Power and AEP.”

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Jeff LaFleur, vice president of generating assets APCO/KY, said that Big Sandy employees have always been driven by high performance.

“Big Sandy, and especially Big Sandy Unit 2, has always been one the highest performing 800-MW units AEP had,” LaFleur said. “It’s a shame. It’s the best 800 unit we got and we had to shut it down. But the positive from all this is I think we will get improvement in the whole fleet. Some of these folks are moving on to other plants. I’m happy to have them and the other plants are happy to get them. It’s a huge advantage given our aging demographics. It’s allowed us to get a little bit ahead of the demographics. They’re trained people.”

Dan Lee, senior vice president, Fossil and Hydro Generation, echoed LaFleur’s comments.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the plants that are getting them. And they will add to the culture in those plants,” Lee said.

Pat Conley, 54, is one employee who is making the transition to the John E. Amos Power Plant in West Virginia, about an hour away from his home in eastern Kentucky.

“I hate to see Unit 2 shut down but that’s just the way the ball bounces,” said Conley, a coal yard operator with 27 years at Big Sandy. “I’m pretty excited about going to Amos. The rumor is they actually have days off up there and you can have them off. The last several years here we pretty much have worked seven days a week. That gets old. Heck, if I love it up there, I may work past 62 if my health holds out.”

Through the years, Big Sandy employees like Conley have taken great pride in providing much-needed electricity to the region, while protecting air and water quality, recycling materials and maintaining an exemplary record of public and work safety. The plant and its employees have been a part of the Louisa and Eastern Kentucky community for more than 50 years, and will continue to be active supporters well into the future, said Big Sandy Plant Manager Aaron Sink.

“This day was about saying thank you and honoring the employees who served this company from 1969 to 2015,” Sink said. “If you let it, it’s a sad occasion. You have to acknowledge that. But to turn it into a positive, we must cherish the memories and what Big Sandy has meant to the area over the years.

“We have provided low-cost electricity to the region. We have contributed to the local economy and we have provided employees who were not just employees, but members of the community and stewards of our company, our mission and what we stood for.”

Sink presented employees with a commemorative case knife or afghan emblazoned with the words “Big Sandy Unit 2 1969 to 2015,” as a keepsake. He challenged them to remember Big Sandy’s core values as they move on to other endeavors — safety, environmental, housekeeping and production.

“Carry on the traditions and values learned here,” he said.

While some Big Sandy employees are moving on to other job opportunities within the AEP family, others have taken jobs elsewhere or opted to retire. New retirees Greg Delong, 57, Tom Pettrey, 56, and Gary Setser, 59, see the closure of Unit 2 as a chance for adventure.

The trio, all avid outdoorsmen, is making plans to take up to six months to hike the Appalachian Trail come spring 2016, a 2,185-mile trek.

“We all like to hike and talked amongst ourselves and the three of us decided that’s what we wanted to do,” Delong said. “We got to talking and we’re leaving in April. We’ll start south in Georgia and hike north to Maine.”

The way Pettrey sees it, if you’re going to retire, you might as well do it right.

“We wanted to do something, one more good challenge,” he said. “We’ve all talked about it for years, but who has the time? Now we do.”

From → News From AEP

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