Truly the backbone of modern life, electricity is an extremely versatile and valuable source of energy that has dramatically changed our world.
Research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public dates back to 1752 when Benjamin Franklin established the relationship between lightning and electricity with his kite experiments.
Today, we rely on electrical power for everything from indoor heating and cooling to lights, refrigeration, cooking appliances and cleaning devices, the pumps that bring us water and remove waste, industrial machinery and equipment, medical devices, communications technology, entertainment gadgets and transportation systems.
So it’s no surprise that even as human civilization survived without electricity for thousands of years, today we become very aware when the power goes out, whether it’s localized and brief or more widespread and longer lasting like the people on the east coast recently experienced in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.
Electricity is an important component of our daily lives.
However, just as important as reliability is to serving customers, other aspects such as safety, cost and overall environmental impact are equally vital.
With more than 458,000 electric customers across the northern third of Indiana, Merrillville-based Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) is the second largest electric distribution company in the state.
“Meeting the unique needs of our customers is a responsibility we take with great pride and having a diverse electric supply mix helps accomplish that goal,” Mike Finissi, chief operating officer for NIPSCO, said. “Our electric supply portfolio includes both traditional and renewable generation sources, including natural gas, coal, hydroelectric and wind.”
NIPSCO operates four electric generating facilities. Michigan City, Bailly and R.M. Schahfer Generating Stations utilize coal-fired steam turbine units. West Terre Haute’s Sugar Creek Generating Station utilizes natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity.
Additionally, the company purchases 100MW of wind power, and operates the Oakdale Hydro Electric Plant, located along Lake Freeman in Carroll County and the Norway Hydro Electric Plant, located along Lake Shafer in White County.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), most of the country’s electricity is produced using steam turbines, and fossil fuels are the most common source of power. In 2011, coal was the fuel for about 42 percent of the electricity generated in the US, natural gas for about 25 percent and petroleum for less than 1 percent. Nuclear power produced 19 percent, and renewable energy sources (hydropower, biomass, wind power, geothermal power and solar power) generated a little over 13 percent.
In Indiana, the makeup of coal-fired electric generation accounts for 82 percent of the total resources due to low-cost access and an abundant supply of this fuel source within the state.
“For a long time, most of NIPSCO’s electric generating portfolio was coal-fired,” Finissi added. “However, in order to cost-effectively and reliably provide electric service to our customers, we started looking at ways to diversify our portfolio. The opportunity to purchase Sugar Creek in 2008 was a good fit for us. The plant uses a very reliable and environmental-friendly fuel source – natural gas.”
Built in 2003, Sugar Creek is a combined cycle power plant featuring gas and steam turbines. While the gas turbines generate electricity using natural gas fuel, the steam turbine generates electricity using waste heat from the gas turbines. The process is extremely efficient since exhaust heat that would otherwise be lost through the exhaust stack is re-used.
Yet, over the first six years, the power plant’s net capacity factor (CF) was under 15 percent - and as low as 3.2 percent – meaning the plant was being heavily under-utilized. In 2010 and 2011, net CF remained under 50%.
However, this year, just prior to an EIA report in June that, for the first time since data collection began, showed generation from natural gas equaled that from coal-fired plants, Sugar Creek logged an 86.7 percent net CF. May of 2012 was the first month that the two gas turbine/generators and the steam turbine/generator operated every single hour.
The fact that a lean staff of 16 operators, three managers and one chemist reversed that performance in three short years caught the attention of the Combined Cycle Users Group, an independent and international user-directed group.
For their focus on new operating and performance objectives that apply state-of-the-art knowledge management tools and techniques anchored in Reliability Centered Maintenance and Operations (RCMO), the Sugar Creek team was awarded the Combined Cycle Journal 2012 Pacesetter Plant Award during the user group’s annual meeting in October.
“We couldn’t be more proud of our dedicated employees who help keep Sugar Creek running reliably, efficiently and most importantly safely,” Finissi said. “This award is a testament to the strong sense of ownership and pride our employees take in the plant.”
Working in collaboration with many key stakeholders, including customers, regulators and other industry partners the company is always pursuing new ideas when it comes to balancing environmental issues, an aging electric infrastructure, congestion on the electric grid and the need for service and reliability improvements.
That ongoing focus and commitment is embedded in the company’s 100 year history. And, it’s what will help NIPSCO continue to meet the needs of its customers over the next century.