WHEATFIELD | The largest project in NIPSCO history is just now topping out at 499 feet at the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station.
Construction workers in the next couple of weeks will finish pouring concrete for a double-stack concrete chimney, the first big step in a project that will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the sprawling coal-fired electric generating plant.
"This is the centerpiece of our generation fleet, so you can see we are serious about maintaining it for the long term," Robert Skaggs Jr., the CEO of NIPSCO parent NiSource Inc., said last week on a tour of the Schahfer Generating Station.
The facility can produce up to 1,780 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.6 million typical American homes. It is the largest of NIPSCO's three operating coal-fired power stations, which serve 457,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers.
Skaggs and NIPSCO CEO Jimmy Staton were at the plant Tuesday to check on the project and give a tour to a small number of Times editors and state officeholders.
The project is the largest in the history of NIPSCO, Skaggs said. Its $510 million price tag compares to a current net worth of $2.3 billion for all NIPSCO facilities.
The double-stack chimney, visible for miles, will contain two flues to carry emissions skyward after they have undergone a "scrubbing" process to remove particulate matter and most of the sulfur dioxide emitted when coal burns.
The new scrubbers also will feed waste products directly to the Georgia-Pacific gypsum plant next door, which uses them to produce wall board.
The work received a powerful push forward earlier this year, when the utility reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring it to spend $600 million on environmental protections at its coal-fired power plants.
"With the EPA, you never know what their next step will be, but the work we are doing here allows us to operate Schahfer for the long term," Staton said.
Since 1990, NIPSCO has spent $375 million installing scrubbers and other emission controls at power plants, which has reduced greenhouse gas emissions 70 percent. It is aiming to reduce those emissions by 80 percent more.
In all, NIPSCO plans to spend $800 million on projects to lower emissions in the next eight years, such as installing a new scrubber at the Michigan City Generating Station, Staton said. The Schahfer work will wind up by the end of 2013.
The expensive projects will be funded mainly by environmental surcharges, called "trackers," which are embedded in customers' bills. Customers currently pay the trackers for projects already completed and NIPSCO does not expect those to change much because of the new ones, said NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer.
According to documents filed in NIPSCO's current electric rate case, a typical residential electric customer was paying $3.10 per month in environmental surcharges in June 2010.
The Babcock & Wilcox Co., of Charlotte, N.C., is the maker of the flue gas desulfurization units being installed at Schahfer. Sargent & Lundy, of Chicago, is providing architectural and engineering services. More than 50 companies in all are involved in the project, many of them locally based.
Work on the Schahfer project, which has employed about 250 construction workers, will slow for a couple of months but then begin ramping up again in late January until more than 900 are employed at the project's peak, according to NIPSCO Chief Operating Officer Michael Finissi.
Along with the $3.8 billion BP refinery project and others at region steel mills, the NIPSCO work has created a boom in industrial construction in Northwest Indiana, with most union hiring halls nearly emptied out during the summer and fall.
"For where we are as a country and as a state, those types of jobs are hugely significant," said state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, who attended Tuesday's tour.