Nicholson & Hall Corp. hasn't built a boiler the size of the one in the giant tent on Ganson Street since the '90s.
When it's completed at the end of November, the 1,099,000-pound boiler will leave Buffalo for Chicago on a lake freighter.
ArcelorMittal will use the boiler to make steam at its steel plant, said William Cole, project manager. Until then, the $2 million boiler is being shaped by 30 boilermakers who work at the only union boilermaker contracting company in Buffalo.
Boiler competition was stiff when Nicholson & Hall opened in 1922. There were 23 boiler companies, Cole said.
"Everybody and everything had a boiler back then," he said.
But since then the popularity of boilers, which generally use coal to heat water and produce energy or steam, has diminished, Cole said.
Low political support for coal and clean coal has slowed business down for Nicholson & Hall, Cole said.
"All of the funding for clean coal has been moved to other energy venues, such as solar," he said. "The industry's very slow because of the current administration's stance on coal power."
Cole said about 50 percent of the work Nicholson & Hall does in an average year is installing equipment to clean the air coming out of pre-existing boilers.
Because of less funding for those initiatives, workers at Nicholson & Hall are spending more time doing boiler maintenance, Cole said.
The company has worked at many AES Corp. sites, such as Somerset and Cayuga. It also works at NRG Energy sites, like a recent installation in Astoria, N.Y.
Even though coal may be waning in political popularity, Nicholson & Hall consistently ranks as one of the busiest boiler companies in the United States, according to the National Association of Construction Boilermaker Employers.
"We're actually in the top 20 boiler companies in the nation," Cole said. "[It's based on] the amount of man hours that we do."
The company doesn't compete based just on price, Cole said. It wins based on job plan, schedule and expertise.
Thursday afternoon there were several second-, third- and fourth-generation boilermakers on the site.
"We're a small company with big muscles, so you have to wear a lot of hats," Cole said.
Nicholson & Hall has a reputation for moving large projects. In July 2010, the company installed the heaviest and tallest one-piece shipment of a boiler in the United States, weighing 5,899,510 pounds, Cole said. It was an NRG Energy installment in Astoria.
The infrastructure that exists for using coal for power in the United States is huge, giving Nicholson & Hall some job security because of maintenance contracts.
"On an average year, 49 percent of the power produced in the United States is coal power, pulverized coal," Cole said. "Then you're like 12 percent hydro, and 12 percent nuclear and about 1.5 percent wind."