A four-person powerhouse

The We Energies power plant that has stood on Port’s lakefront for 83 years once employed 225; today it takes just four to produce more than twice as much electricity

STANDING IN FRONT of one of the massive steam turbine units at the Port Washington Generating Station was Terry Hoffman, the plant’s asset manager, who has worked for the utility for 39 years. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

When it’s running at full capacity, the Port Washington generating station —the preferred term for today’s power plants — produces about 1,200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 400,000 houses.

The electricity is placed on the grid and distributed throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

To produce that power, the plant would use 7,800 dekatherms per hour — 187,000 a day — of natural gas, a cleaner source of energy than the mountains of coal that used to fire the generators.

And the power is produced in a plant that requires only four people to operate it at any one time.

The Port Washington generating station — part of WEC Energy Group, which has 4.4 million customers and a system-wide capacity of 8,700 megawatts — continues to have a significant presence on the city’s lakefront, housed in a building that still retains much of the brick architecture of the 1930s, when it was originally constructed.

But the plant’s 80-plus years on the waterfront makes it an often overlooked structure, one that hearkens to the city’s industrial heritage.

The power plant began operating in 1935, a coal-fired plant with five 80-megawatt generating units built as a Works Progress Administration project.

The plant was hailed at the time as the most efficient plant in the world, a title it held from 1935 to 1948.

While modifications were made through the years, the biggest change occurred in the early 2000s, when the plant was converted from one fueled by coal to a facility run on natural gas.

Construction on that project began in 2003, with the two units put into service in 2005 and 2008.

The plant has two 575-megawatt combined cycle units that produce power, each with two combustion turbines and a steam turbine.

In simple terms, gas comes into the plant and is sent into the combustion turbine, which reaches temperatures of 1,100 degrees.

Water sent into the boiler is converted to steam, which reaches temperatures of 1,050 degrees and produces 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

That steam is used to turn turbines that generate electricity. A condensing unit converts the steam back into water that’s then reused in the system.

The plant uses lake water to condense the steam and for its air intake system, but city water, as much as 230,000 gallons a day, for the boilers.  

While the plant’s capacity is 1,200 megawatts, it doesn’t operate at full capacity all the time.

The Port plant is considered an intermediate facility, run when the power it produces is needed on the grid, said Terry Hoffman, asset manager.

“This plant runs primarily during the day,” he said, especially on weekdays. At night, it isn’t unusual to find one or both are offline.

At peak times — summer and winter when demand for air conditioning and heat is greatest — the plant runs more often, Hoffman added.

The plant can quickly ramp production up or down. Hoffman said capacity can change 50 megawatts per minute, the fastest in the We Energies system.

Surprisingly, the plant is less efficient in summer, when the air temperature is higher, Hoffman said.

To reduce the temperature, the plant has an air intake system that resembles a radiator that uses lake water to cool the air and thus increase the efficiency of the units.

When the plant was converted to gas, it reduced its emissions by 98 percent, Hoffman said.

“We can produce 2-1/2 times more electricity than before,” he said, while using less than half the fuel per kilowatt hour.

“Converting to gas gave us a lot more energy and a lot cleaner power,” Hoffman said.

The plant today has four 210-foot-tall chimneys, compared to the two 525-foot smokestacks it had before the conversion.

And while in its heyday the plant employed about 225 people, many of them involved in the coal handling and maintenance crews, today there are only 38 employees.

Four-person crews are used to run the plant, Hoffman said, adding the control room is staffed around the clock.

“Everything happens in here,” Hoffman said of the control room, where banks of large computer screens reflect what’s happening in the facility.

“Operators still make the rounds and check things,” he added. “But here, there are a lot of things that are automated.”

While statistics about the plant flow off Hoffman’s lips easily, perhaps the record he is most proud of is the fact the plant has not had a reportable injury since 2014.

“That’s the most important thing,” Hoffman said. “We never want to see anyone hurt.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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