The 75-megawatt turbine stirs the air inside the access pit, while a steady whirr penetrates the standard-issue orange foam earplugs, handed out at the Bay d’Espoir hydroelectric generating station.
The turbine generator is one of six found in the belly of the main powerhouse at Bay d’Espoir — the hydro power plant that, after its official opening by Joey Smallwood in August 1967, permitted both rapid industrial growth and the electrification of rural Newfoundland.
Power demand on the growing isolated island electrical system led to a second powerhouse with a
154-megawatt turbine, officially opened by Brian Peckford in February 1978.
If the electrical power control centre in St. John’s is the nerve centre for the island power system, the power plant at Bay d’Espoir — even today — remains its beating heart.
With a little more than 600 megawatts of capacity, the Bay d’Espoir power plant is the largest on the island, coming in ahead of the 500 megawatts produced from burning oil in Holyrood.
Provincially, it is the second-largest power facility, ranking behind the 5,428-megawatt capacity of Churchill Falls in Labrador.
A level above the floor of the powerhouse, in a much brighter room, a phone rings.
“Control room? Yes. She’s at 71 … 72,” says hydro plant operator Darrin Hicks upon answering, reading from a display in front of him.
Hicks is the lead operator at Bay d’Espoir and has 24 years on the job with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
During The Telegram’s Oct. 8 visit, he sits at a desk positioned across from controls that have been with the company for more than 20 years longer than he has.
“This is like a museum,” he says with a laugh, “but if it works, why change it?”
Upgrades are, particularly these days, under heavy scrutiny, in light of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro’s rising capital budgets and the resulting discomfort from industrial customers, the Consumer Advocate and the Public Utilities Board.
The Telegram will be looking more closely at Hydro’s projects in the weeks to come.
Hicks explains the station has seen upgrades to equipment over the years as required, pointing out clearly newer additions to the control panels. Computer screens stand on his desktop.
His job involves collaboration with the electric power control centre in St. John’s — making sure generators are kept at the ready and brought on and off as the power demands of the province change.
“They need them started, up to speed and then synced to the system,” he said, explaining the units can be turned up and down from St. John’s, but no one there can get them going, or troubleshoot.
Outside and uphill, in a steady wind and already crisp temperatures, power systems operator apprentice Jessica Lowe steps out of a Nalcor-labelled, heavy-duty pickup, capable of handling the deep ruts and potholes of a dirt access road.
Lowe took up the task of being the tour guide, offering a stop at the intake at the reservoir, to provide a broader view of the Bay d’Espoir infrastructure — switchyard, powerhouses, transmission lines.
Buried penstock pipes connect the collected water to the powerhouses and turbines about 180 metres below. Bay d’Espoir’s three trademark “surge tanks,” essentially emergency water release valves, stand between.
Lowe explains the large drop-down gates at the upper intake can block the water from running down through the pipes, towards the powerhouse. These allow for maintenance work as needed.
The Bay d’Espoir power plant can be the third stop for water in the system, with power also being generated at the Granite Canal power station and Upper Salmon, before reaching Bay d’Espoir and running out towards St. Veronica’s, Milltown-Head of Bay d’Espoir, St. Alban’s and other communities in the distance.
The construction of the power infrastructure at Bay d’Espoir was the high-risk, high-reward project of its time.
The start of the facility, including the construction of the first powerhouse, led to the construction of a new wharf at St. Alban’s, an airport nearby and a road linking Bay
d’Espoir to Bishop’s Falls, in addition to the project work. About 1,800 people were employed. Nearly 95 per cent of workers on the project were Newfoundlanders.
It did not go off without a hitch, as explained in the book published in 2000 by the Silver Lights Club — a group of retirees and employees with 25 or more years of service with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. The project faced labour troubles and a worker strike. The date to start producing power was delayed.
With that said, “the construction of the Bay d’Espoir hydroelectric development and the high-voltage transmission network became the jewel in the crown of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.”
Today, Bay d’Espoir as a whole still stands as a long-life asset, one relied upon to provide power for customers around the island.
Once completed, the power plant at Muskrat Falls will take over Bay d’Espoir’s No. 2 spot in terms of capacity for power generators in the province.
Bay d’Espoir will continue on.
In addition to requests for parts and work in yearly capital budgets, Hydro representatives have made clear the intention propose construction of a new 230kv power line, to bring more Bay d’Espoir power to the Avalon Peninsula.
The power line is expected to cost $268 million over five years.
The proposal was filed with the PUB, retracted and has yet to be made again. However, Hydro’s 2013 capital budget proposal makes repeated references to the project and commits Hydro to filing again at a later date.