Well, I guess the best thing we can say is that we’re lucky February was right up there with the warmest February in history.
Otherwise, we might have been taking turns shivering in the dark, while also watching our power bills rise.
Some of that we’ve already heard about: low water levels and persistent maintenance issues (right now, Hydro says those issues mean the Holyrood generating station will run at 17 per cent below its full operating level in 2016, even if there are no more breakdowns) meant that Hydro had “to run standby thermal generating sources, notably combustion turbines and diesel generators, at considerably higher levels than forecast,” according to a recent request to the Public Utilities Board.
Those thermal units come on fast when you need power, but they’re not cheap to run. How expensive are they? Well, when Newfoundland Hydro submitted an application to the PUB on Feb. 5 to create a new customer-based fund to pay for the extra fuel they were burning, the utility was talking in the tens of millions: as much as $33 million, in fact.
Hydro’s backing down from that $33 million number now, after increases in some water levels and the near-record-breaking warmth of February. Look back at January, though, and you can see that Hydro was cleary concerned, both about that cost and its ability to keep the lights on.
Buried away in another request to the PUB — this one to spend $6.3 million to buy six of the eight 2 megawatt diesel generators the utility is currently renting at Holyrood — is an explanation of how close Hydro came in January to having yet another total power meltdown.
It’s startling reading: “In January and February of 2016, Holyrood Units 1 and 2 were forced out of service for urgent boiler tube replacements. During this same timeframe, the Hardwoods Gas Turbine experienced operational issues, including a requirement for an engine replacement. These operational issues have increased Hydro’s requirement to run standby units to ensure energy and reliability for customers. There has been a substantial increase in the requirement for standby generation to ensure reliable service for customers on the Avalon. Specifically, the operation of the diesel units was required on 20 occasions during this period to ensure adequate reserve levels.”
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During that time, you might remember that Newfoundland Hydro issued a power watch a number of times — what the application says is that the difference between that power watch and a Level 4 power emergency, complete with rolling blackouts, included a backstop as thin as eight 2 megawatt mobile Caterpillar diesel generators.
“(If) Hydro had not operated Hydro’s Avalon Standby Generation, the Avalon Peninsula would have been in a Level 4 Power Emergency for the majority of January 2016 when there were boiler tube issues at Holyrood, and Hydro would have worked with Newfoundland Power to institute rolling customer outages on the Avalon Peninsula,” according to the document filed with the PUB.
So, when was Newfoundland Hydro using the mobile diesel generators to maintain power? Well, Dec. 24, 29 and 31, and Jan. 2, 6-14, 18, 22 and 26. You can see why Hydro wants to buy the equipment, because that’s a pretty slim margin standing between us with the lights on, and us taking turns with the lights off. (Interestingly, in their current connection configuration, only five of the eight diesels can supply power to the grid at any one time.)
One other interesting aside? Hydro also needs the mobile generators as one option to “black start” Holyrood’s main units. That was supposed to be something that was going to be handled by the utility’s purchase of a combustion turbine for Holyrood. The thing is, the ability of the combustion turbine to black start the main Holyrood generators has never been tested. Tests were set for August and September 2015 — now, the earliest opportunity is this spring or summer. Good to see we’re on top of things.
The bottom line?
February was kind and we were lucky. Cross your fingers for March.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com — Twitter: @Wangersky.