WELLS STREET POWER STATION

A National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark

The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company, later Wisconsin Electric and now We Energies, conducted experiments in the use of pulverized coal at its Street (formerly called Oneida Street)power plant in 1918. These experiments were highly successful and the plant became the first central power station in the United States to be equipped and successfully operated with pulverized fuel.

Pulverized Coal Feeds Burners

The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company led the way in using pulverized coal.

The experiments were directed at determining whether burning coal in a pulverized form could conserve fuel and potentially reduce the cost of electric power. Numerous variations were explored and carefully tested. The tests were meticulously conducted, observed by independent members of the power community, and reported widely in numerous publications. The results established the fact that the potential existed for more efficient fuel utilization through pulverized coal firing. Largely as a result of these experiments, pulverized coal firing has almost completely replaced stoker firingin large central station boilers.

In June of 1948, thirty years after the development, Combustion magazine devoted an entire section to this momentous occasion. In it an article entitled "Pioneer Work at Milwaukee" written by Fred L. Dornbrook, chief engineer of power plants for Wisconsin Electric, stated:

At the time of the first world war, in 1917, coal was burned in Milwaukee power plants on under-feed stokers.  Efficiencies were those usual for that time, outages were frequent and accepted, and the quality of coal was becoming poorer, while its cost was increasing.  Coal had been burned in pulverized form for about 25 years in the manufacture of cement; it had been employed in annealing and forging furnaces, as well as in the manufacture of refractories, aided some work had been done toward application to locomotives.
At the Oneida Street plant it was thought that better results could be obtained if the coal were burned in pulverized form.  Thus came the birth of a trial installation at that plant in early 1918 on one boiler, and shortly thereafter on four more boilers.  These boilers, in boiler room one,were equipped with furnaces and burners for firing pulverized coal.  Pulverizing equipment was installed near the oil battery room on the third floor, and piping connected from there toburner boxes at the boilers.
By November 1919 it was possible to perform tests on the five boilers, and a test of 99 hours duration, or a total of 495 boiler hours, showed a gross efficiency of 80.67%.

One of the problems of those early experiments was disposal of the ash.  Deposited on the furnace bottom, ash became "sticky" and fused into a sheet covering the entire hearth.  Removal was extremely difficult. The accumulation of slag, together with the erosion of sidewalls, caused many shutdowns.  It became apparent that if the temperature of the ash deposit could be lowered below the plastic temperature it could be removed in a dry or powdered form.  Many experiments were conducted to determine the best method of freeing the furnace of slag. This was finally accomplished in 1920 by development of the so-called water screen, consisting of a series of tubes through which boiler water was circulated. This change in furnace design, more than any single item, contributed to the success of the modern pulverized fuel fired furnaces in use today.

In 1980, ASME recognized the accomplishments of marine engineers John Anderson and Fred Dornbrook by declaring the station an National Engineering Landmark. For his efforts solving these problems, in 1948 Mr. Dornbrook received the ASME Medal and the Distinguished Achievment Award from the College of Engineering,University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Decommissioned from service for many years, the plant is now the site of the Milwaukee Reparatory Theatre.  The building continues to contribute to Wisconsin's public life and heritage.