A televised farewell to a historic power plant

A televised farewell to a historic power plant

100-year-old Buck Steam Station in North Carolina is featured in a TV show that highlights its glory days and its explosive demise

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Buck Steam Station under construction in 1926.

Ronnie Goodman’s work projects always blow up. 

It’s not that Goodman, an engineer, is unlucky. As Duke Energy’s project manager for demolition in the Carolinas, blowing things to smithereens is part of his job.

Goodman’s work has never looked more electrifying than it does in the Smithsonian Channel’s series “Inside Mighty Machines.” Don’t be fooled by all the booms, bangs and flying sparks. It’s the camera work and fancy post-production wizardry, Goodman said.

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Ronnie Goodman

His job involves months of planning before a few seconds of an explosion and destruction. A lot of spreadsheets are created and analyzed before the adrenaline jolt on implosion day.

Hosted by ex-NASA jet engineer Chad Zdenek, the series spotlights massive engineering marvels. Zdenek explores a 747 jumbo jet, an oil rig in the North Sea and Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station. The series gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how machines are built and how they work. In “Power Plant,” the crew reveals how a retired coal-powered plant gets destroyed. (Hint: Very carefully.)

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Buck in 1926.

How did a film crew in Ireland know about a steam station in Salisbury, N.C.? They had seen YouTube videos of other Duke Energy plant implosions and called to ask if the company would be demolishing anything anytime soon. The answer was yes.

For nearly 100 years, Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station harnessed the energy of coal and steam to provide power to 15 million homes and factories. It “burned 10,000 tons of coal every day” in its prime, Zdenek declares in the show before calling it a “dinosaur of the Coal Age.” The plant – and others like it – are coming down to make way for cleaner, more efficient energy sources.

Duke Energy’s recent Sustainability Report says the company’s use of coal dropped more than 50% from 2008 to 2018. By 2030, the company expects more than 80% of its electricity to come from zero and lower-carbon sources, including natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear. In 2018, Duke Energy’s carbon emissions were 31% less than in 2005, and the company expects to reach a 40% reduction by 2030.

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The turbine room in 1926.

Zdenek makes the point that what’s now a dinosaur was once revolutionary. “This was the first coal station built in the Southeast,” said Paul Beatty Jr., a Duke Energy engineer and local historian. “And it was built in just nine months. There was a lot of pride surrounding this plant and Duke Energy’s commitment to provide enough electricity to power the burgeoning textile industry.”

Buck Steam Station was more than an employer. It was a catalyst for creating a community where there hadn’t been one. “There was no housing here before the Buck plant was built,” Beatty said. “Mill houses were built to attract a workforce, and soon, a village church and school sprang up.” Power plants created jobs – and communities.

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Buck's Dukeville village in 1951.

Zdenek calls the station “a super-sized piece of engineering genius” and “an incredible electricity-making machine” that had “reached the end of its working life.” The TV special gives the plant an impressive (and loud) eulogy. Zdenek’s tribute to the first large-capacity coal generating plant built in the Carolinas is action-packed.

At its peak, Buck, named for Duke Energy co-founder James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, burned up to 20,000 tons of coal a day and powered more than 200,000 homes. Before the plant was imploded in 2018 in two phases, a film crew explored the old boilers, turbines, condensers and generators. Goodman was their tutor and tour guide.

Planning the demolition involved much more than the spectacular implosion that gets all the glory. The tedious work can take a couple of years or more. When film crews were on-site, Goodman did double duty as project manager and on-camera talent. He was also charged with keeping his team and the visitors safe.

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Buck before the first implosion in 2018.

“They were escorted 100% of the time when they were on-site,” Goodman said.

“A demolition generates a lot of waste,” Goodman said. “Our goal in any demo is to recycle as much of it as we can. The oil goes to an oil recycling facility. Chemicals are sent to people who can reuse them. Clean concrete and brick are used to fill in the basements after the demolition.” Steel and copper are sold. The six giant boilers in Buck’s basement alone yielded 500 tons of steel, copper and brass.

Mundane tasks don’t make for good TV. Viewers saw only the most exciting parts of the four-stage process: initial shutdown; decommissioning, which includes draining and cleaning; demolition (high drama), which also includes abatement; and restoring the site to its original appearance.

The goal in the final phase, Goodman said, is “to make it look like nothing was ever there.”

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The final implosion in October 2018.

Goodman cites another old steam station he helped bring down – Riverbend in Gaston County, N.C. – as an example of a completed decommissioning and demolition. “It now looks like a green prairie,” he said. “There’s tall grass – about chest-high – that waves in the wind. There are no remnants of the old station.”

The crew wanted to document the major milestones, Goodman said. “But since the crew was in Ireland while our preparation was going on, scheduling became a huge challenge. If I called them to say something visually exciting was going to happen in the next three days, they couldn’t mobilize and get here.”

Goodman had to stick to his schedule. He couldn’t make something – a blast, for instance – happen on command when the crew was in town. So film crews figured out ways around it to guarantee riveting TV.

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Buck Combined Cycle Station today. The plant is fueled by cleaner natural gas.

On each of about eight visits over 10 months, they filmed for three or four days each time. Between their visits, work continued; the site was always evolving. Once, they returned and needed to get footage of a part of the building that had already been blasted into oblivion. (Two implosions were scheduled – one in August and the other in October.) “They had to make it look like the building was still there,” Goodman said. “Through the magic of camera angles and editing, they made it work.”

If it appears the host was in proximity to potential danger, it’s purely the editing, Goodman said. When producers pressed to have Zdenek do something thrilling and hands-on, Goodman insisted he suit up in proper personal protection equipment such as coveralls and safety glasses before cutting a piece of steel.

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Goodman and his team – operations superintendent Mike Bray, in particular – have to manage a lot of moving parts on a normal job. Hosting a film crew added to their load. The crew was flexible – and creative – in dealing with limitations.

The land where Buck stood is on its way to becoming a grassy field, but the mighty and once-revolutionary power plant has now been immortalized. It was a fitting coda.

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