Salisbury’s Buck Steam Station legacy to continue in TV miniseries

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 3, 2019

By Samuel Motley

SALISBURY — While the implosion of Salisbury’s Buck Steam Station ended an era, its story will live on through a new Smithsonian Channel miniseries, “Inside Mighty Machines.”

In the episode “Power Plant,” Chad Zdenek, the host of the show and a former rocket engineer for NASA, helps take apart America’s past engineering marvels and legends to discover how each one shaped the history of the country and world.

It is, therefore, fitting that Buck Steam Station is featured in Zdenek’s series. After the first commercial coal power station began operation in September 1882, coal stations like Buck worked around the clock to bring power to hundreds of thousands of people a day.

Buck was built in 1926 and took roughly 10 months to build. It was Duke Energy’s first large-capacity coal-generating plant built in the Carolinas and was named for the company’s co-founder, James Buchanan ‘Buck’ Duke, according to Duke Energy’s website. Buck’s steam generators were decommissioned in 2013. In recent years, the site has drawn scrutiny over possible water contamination from coal ash stored in massive ponds adjacent to the Dukeville community. Duke Energy contends that well water shows no signs of influence from coal ash and cites studies from state regulators and Duke University as proof that substances in water was from soil and rocks.

That ash will be excavated and recycled or stored in a lined landfill as part of a settlement.

Zdenek’s episode on Buck delves into the station’s impressive engineering feats in two important ways — through its massive steam turbines and its 110-foot-high precipitators.

Buck’s powerful steam turbines totaled six, generating 460 megawatts at full capacity. And at its height, the plant burned 20,000 tons of coal a day. Steam turbines like the ones found at Buck are “so efficient and so effective that 100 years later” they are still found in power plants today, Zdenek says in the episode.

By the 1970s, the environmental effects of coal steam stations like Buck were clear, Zdenek says in the episode. For this reason, Duke Energy added massive precipitators to filter out poisonous metals from the air, Zdenek said.

Plants like Buck are still prominent throughout the U.S., producing roughly a third of the nation’s power. However, one in four of these coal power plants set to retire or convert to natural gas and renewables.

Zdenek’s miniseries is a glimpse into the history of the factory that brought Rowan County into the modern age.

The episode on Buck will debut at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel. The miniseries will run Sundays through June 2.

Contact newsroom intern Samuel Motley 704-797-4264.