Built to power cities, Rawhide Energy Project expands its environmental mission to green energy

Albert J. Hamilton, the Platte River Power Authority’s first general manager, was an outside-the-box kind of thinker. One day in 1982, he checked his car’s odometer, realized it was was 26 miles from PRPA headquarters in Fort Collins to the site of the planned Rawhide Energy Project north of Wellington and had a notion: What about running a marathon over those 26 miles?

That was how the Rawhide Marathon was established — two years before the power plant came on line. There were 1,486 runners that year and the race was held annually, along with a half-marathon, through 1986. Hamilton also promoted the introduction of two herds of buffalo, which today roam on more than 4,500 acres of Rawhide land. Rawhide employees see to their welfare, and the herds thrive because the plant has maintained a safe and healthy environment for wildlife. Migratory birds and other animals find the area a good place to be as well.

But the Rawhide Energy Project wasn’t built to accommodate long-distance runners or wildlife searching for a home. Its mission was larger and more critical. As a component of the Platte River Power Authority, it was built to generate power for several growing Front Range communities, whose future electricity supply was looking uncertain. Estes Park, Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins came together for this effort to create a self-sustaining electric utility, a huge and complex undertaking that took more than a decade to complete.

Its history goes back to 1965 when Stan Case, the visionary director of Fort Collins utilities created the Platte River Municipal Power Authority. It became obvious that Colorado towns were going to be forced to seek additional power. From 31 original communities in the authority, four emerged and banded together to produce power to meet the growing needs of their communities. Municipal was dropped from the name and a board consisting of a member from each community was chosen to make decisions to avoid federal or state government regulation.

It was Hamilton who undertook a capital-raising trip to New York, which resulted in PRPA becoming the first nonprofit action agency to issue revenue bonds through a negotiated sale in 1975.

Ground was broken for Rawhide in 1979. A railroad to supply coal was dedicated in 1981. The buffalo arrived in 1983 and in March 1984, the year that Hamilton retired, the plant came to life.

From day one, PRPA and Rawhide have been committed to the environmentally responsible production of power.

Anyone who has traveled Interstate 25 and looked west to Rawhide’s towering smokestack knows that no black smoke is ever seen emerging from it. The residue from coal-fired generation of electricity is filtered through Teflon-lined bags housed in two, 34-foot long buildings. Scrubbers treat nitrous oxide and activated carbon removes mercury until all that remains are particles of fly ash that can be recycled into bricks or plowed into the ground. Rawhide produces only one-tenth of the average sulfur dioxide output of coal-fired plants across the nation and is known as one of the 10 most efficient operations in the Western U.S.

The plant consists of a continuously operating coal-fired unit that provides 280 megawatts (a megawatt is a million watts) of power and is supplemented by five natural gas powered turbines with quick start-up times that are used during periods of high demand. Low sulfur coal comes from the Antelope Mine in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Every other day, 85 to 90 railroad cars, each carrying 100 tons of coal, arrive at Rawhide. The plant maintains a 60-day reserve in case delivery should ever be interrupted. It takes a swivel system one minute to dump a carload of coal inside the plant where dust can be minimized. The coal gets ground to a powder before it is injected into a 16-foot tall boiler.

Water from Horsetooth Reservoir is processed until it is 1,000 times cleaner than drinking water in order to prevent corrosion in the stainless steel tubes it enters to produce steam at temperatures up to 2,500 degrees. “It’s critical that the water is absolutely pure,” said Gale McGaha Miller, plant chemistry advisor.

The power generation process is monitored 24/7 by the plant’s most experienced employees working in a control room. They keep an eagle eye on the whole operation and make sure the heat remains consistent. The power is then directed through transmission lines and distributed to the four member communities.

Every three to five years, the boilers are shut down for extensive maintenance. This procedure occurs during a time when demand is low — either spring or fall. Cleaning and a major upgrade is scheduled for October and will take six weeks to complete. During that time, PRPA will purchase power from an outside source.

Instead of using cooling towers, Rawhide deposits its used water into 500-acre Hamilton Lake, created for that purpose. Water in the lake maintains a temperature of 50 to 75 degrees year round and attracts bald eagles, pelicans, hawks and snow geese. Coyotes, rabbits, antelope, foxes, badgers and mountain lions visit as well.

PRPA is diversifying its power generation by making use of hydropower, wind farms and solar energy. A solar array on 185 acres adjacent to Rawhide is due to come on line in 2016 and will produce up to 30 megawatts of power, representing 1.5 to 2 percent of Rawhide’s power generation, enough for about 7,000 homes. In 2014, 74.2 percent of PRPA’s power came from coal, 19.1 percent from hydropower, 4.8 percent from wind, .02 from natural gas and 1.7 percent was purchased.

A tour of Rawhide is a noisy, windy, fascinating excursion; an event that makes one appreciate the power we use daily that is so easy to take for granted. The plant’s heritage and the dedication of its 100-plus employees goes a long way toward maintaining its cutting-edge, environmentally forward looking reputation.

Tours are open to the public and can be arranged by contacting PRPA at 970-226-4000.

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