The noise hit first — metal on metal. Then came the thick smoke.
It was about 6:40 a.m. on Jan. 11 and the failure in an internal system pushing lubricating oil into a massive turbine unit at the Holyrood Thermal Generating Station was causing the machine to chew itself up inside.
The sound was enough to bring power plant operator Matt Hutchings to the window of the control room. He was soon gearing up for emergency response, heading to fight some fire, he told The Telegram. As he did, a power outage was hitting much of Newfoundland.
With a blizzard raging outside, snow and salty spray had been causing problems with equipment at the switchyard feeding the Holyrood power plant. Those problems resulted in voltage issues inside, causing systems to switch to protective, isolating backups.
Put simply, the backup for the lubrication system on one of the plant’s three generators did not work as it was supposed to. The insides of the generator started to grind in just 28 seconds. That started the noise.
Within two minutes the fires started, releasing heavy smoke, as internal seals were breached and oil leaked into areas where it should not be. The oil ignited as it hit machinery running as hot as 1,000 F.
A safety video that is required viewing by every guest to the Holyrood power plant — including reporters who toured the plant on Wednesday — makes reference to an onsite team of emergency response technicians.
Only one emergency response technician was scheduled to work on the day the Unit 1 generator caught fire and they did not make it in to work because of the storm.
It left the six operators inside the plant to deal with the situation on their own.
The Telegram spoke briefly with Hutchings about what it was like to be one of the heroes of Holyrood, before being told he was not an official spokesperson for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
One of the designated spokespeople is Terry LeDrew, a manager at the plant who has been on the job for 22 years.
LeDrew was upfront about the seriousness of the event.
“The building got pretty dark,” he said, noting the trouble outside caused a blackout inside before the facility’s emergency lighting kicked in.
Even so, when a piece of equipment — so heavy the cover is lifted off with an overhead crane — starts to shake, you feel it as much as see it.
“It danced,” LeDrew said, noting he had not seen a failure of this kind in 22 years on the job.
The generator normally powers down over the course of about 40 minutes, he said. In this case, it was locked up solid in seven.
“I know this is a bad-news story, but there would have been much more significant damage if we hadn’t had good intervention from our staff here,” he said.
“The operators are well-trained in response to this type of event, and they responded and put the fire out and prevented any further damage,” said Rob Henderson, vice-president of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and a second official spokesman.
There were no injuries.
In large part as a result of the emergency event at the Holyrood plant, 65,000 Newfoundland Power customers were left without electricity.
Within a day, the number of outages was reduced to about 6,300. Scattered outages were still being reported in the St. John’s-Mount Pearl area four days later.
At the station, Unit 1 required days to cool and six weeks to disassemble.
There are five bearings for the unit. All five were destroyed by the lack of proper lubrication.
As the investigation has progressed, individual unit parts have been removed, sandblasted and digitally tested, but that work continues.
Units 1 and 2 are from the same manufacturer and with similar hours of service. At this point, it’s unknown why the lubrication system on one failed and did not on the other.
Hydro’s estimated cost for finishing the investigation and getting Unit 1 back up and running is $13.2 million. That total includes investigative work completed to date, Henderson said.
He said there have been meetings with staff from the Public Utilities Board as Hydro’s investigation has progressed.
A detailed, formal application relating to the capital costs associated with the repair and reconstruction work was filed with the regulator even as reporters toured the power plant.
Henderson said the hope is to get repair work completed as soon as possible.
“Having this unit unavailable makes us unable to take the other units down to do the critical maintenance work that we need to do,” he said.
The goal is to have Unit 1 back in service in June, with the investigation finished and documentation filed with the board by July.