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GVEA Restarts Healy 2, Sees Full Coal-fired Operation ‘In The Not-too-distant Future’

KUAC file photo

Updated: Golden Valley Electric Association restarted and operated the boiler of its coal-fired Healy 2 powerplant for several hours during a test run Monday. The test re-firings resumed Thursday and will continue through August, when Golden Valley hopes to make the 50-megawatt plant fully operational.

For now, Healy 2’s boiler is burning a type of oil, before it’s slowly transitioned to coal. Gary Betsill , Golden Valley’s vice president of operations and power supply, said Tuesday that crews shut it down after Monday’s test-firing, then fired it up again the next day.

“It ran for several hours yesterday. It’s back running again now,” Betsill said.

It’s the first time that Golden Valley had restarted the boiler since November 2016, when a small explosion that utility officials call a “puff” halted the last effort to restart the 50-megawatt plant in Healy. The puff caused about a million dollars in damage to the system that feeds pulverized coal into a boiler combustion chamber.

It’s the same system where an earlier and stronger blast in March 2016 halted that previous restart effort.

It’s the same system where an earlier and stronger blast occurred in March 2016, halting a previous restart effort. But Betsill says the new fuel system seems to be working well.

“The old system that caused the puffs in the past is laying in a boneyard,” he said, “and the new coal-handling system is in place.”

Editor's note: This story has been

Betsill says the new system had worked well so far. And he says he believes it’ll correct the problems that required Golden Valley to halt its last effort to restart Healy 2.

“We’re impressed with what we have,” he said, “and I think we’ve got tried and proven technology in the building.”

'We're impressed with what we have. I think we've got tried and proven technology in the building.'
-- Gary Betsill,
GVEA vice president
of operations
and power supply

Betsill says a few issues arose during the first two tests, which he says is to be expected during the meticulously cautious process of refiring a powerplant boiler that hasn’t been run in a while.

“Of course there were little glitches along the way. This didn’t operate like it was supposed to,” he said, referring to crew members’ response to the anomalies.

“It’d been sitting idle for 18 months,” he added.

Betsill says crews will continue firing the boiler with oil and then gradually transition to coal. He says they’ll monitor the boiler and troubleshoot problems during tests that will continue through August. And he says if all goes according to plan, Healy 2 will be burning coal only and be fully operational by September 1st.

“In the not-too-distant future, we’ll start bringing in some coal,” he said. “And as you bring coal in, you take oil out, until you finally transition to nothing but coal.”

Golden Valley's board of directors last August approvedspending up to $20 million to repair the problems. The utility's board has long promoted using more coal to generate electricity, because it’s a cheap fuel that’ll help the utility hold down costs and keep ratepayers’ monthly electricity bills from rising. The powerplant will be get its fuel from the nearby Usibelli Coal Mine, which is headquartered in Healy.

Critics say Healy 2 has already cost the utility more than $175 million since Golden Valley bought it in 2013 for $44 million from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. Others oppose Healy 2 because it’ll produce carbon dioxide that’ll contribute to climate change.

Healy 2 was built by state and federal agencies in the 1990s at a cost of nearly $300 million to demonstrate so-called clean-coal technology. But it’s never been able to dependably and economically operate, so the agencies mothballed it in 1999.

Editor's note: This story has been revised and updated with new information.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.