The shutdown of a coal-based power plant in the U.S. barely makes news these days. Hundreds have closed in the past decade, and more are likely for a variety of reasons—economics, regulations or because they are aged.
On paper, it always just looks like numbers.
But when the management team and board at Hoosier Energy in Bloomington, Indiana, began seriously considering shutting down its largest coal-based plant, there was one number that mattered most: 185—the number of folks who work there.
The Merom Generating Station, on Indiana’s western edge between Terre Haute and Sullivan, is a community, says Chris Blunk, Hoosier’s senior vice president of information technology and corporate services.
“It always represented more than just a power plant.”
Though the 1,004-megawatt plant now operates at a fraction of its capacity as it moves toward the planned 2023 closing, there was a time in the decades after its 1982 opening when it was a regional economic and cultural dynamo. It needed 10,000 tons of coal every day, creating thousands of jobs for local miners, truckers and railroad operators.
Some 200 coal trucks would rumble daily through the gates on the 600-acre site, depositing 20 tons in a single dump, fuel that made the steam that turned the twin turbines that were capable of powering homes for 700,000 residents in southern Indiana and southeastern Illinois.
In addition, at least five trainloads would arrive each week, the hopper cars placed on a rotary and turned on their sides, dumping whole loads weighing 20 million pounds.
And at least two generations of workers started—and ended—full careers at Merom, operating the complex grinders and conveyors that pulverized native Hoosier bituminous coal and limestone from nearby quarries. They maintained the miles of high-pressure, super-heated pipes to the turbines and the scrubbers.
The plant’s 1,550-acre lake, created as a cooling pond, offered fishing and hunting. Its park-like setting with teeming populations of wildlife was also the source of nature excursions for the school kids who lived within a bus ride to Merom.
A natural partnership
Those who worked and benefited from the plant held it with some degree of affection, like those who harbor fond memories of their hometowns in their heyday.
Blunk is one of them. He began his 25-year career at Hoosier as a safety department intern at Merom, later joining as a full-fledged safety specialist after graduating from Indiana State University. He worked there for 13 years before going to the main office.
Loyalty to the plant and Hoosier’s long-standing connection to Indiana State University’s technology programs provided the right conditions for the creation of a one-year college certificate course in emerging energy technology.
“It was natural to look to a partnership with ISU,” Blunk says.
Its sole purpose is to make sure Merom’s employees land on their feet with the skills they need to get other jobs at Hoosier or elsewhere in today’s power sector.
“We are targeting the high-demand skill sets that will be required by emerging energy technology,” Blunk says.
So, the program centers on distributed energy management systems, including AC and DC circuits and design; digital computer logic; programmable logic controls and control systems; industrial electronic current control systems; and technical graphics. Labs associated with the program prepare participants to test for their federal radio licenses; radio proficiency is necessary because newer system components are all interconnected and must communicate data.
The online program, which about 60 employees are currently enrolled in, is a part of ISU’s College of Technology. The G&T picks up all the costs.
Blunk says Hoosier’s retraining program has generated interest among other G&Ts that are in the process of retiring coal-based facilities. Colleges and universities are also paying attention because it offers a practical curriculum than can attract students who want and need the training without the costs of a four-year degree.
“There is so much when it comes to making these kinds of decisions,” Blunk says. “We can’t keep everybody at Hoosier, we know that. But we are committed to leaving nobody behind.”