Archive for Thursday, December 6, 2007

Price of power: part I

December 6, 2007

Factoids on Baldwin City's plants

Baldwin City is provided most of its power by KCPL. During peak usage months in the summer and emergencies, the city generates its own. The new plant, completed in 2004, has a 6 megawatt capacity.

  • The new plant cost $5.4 million tbuild and there's room for another engine.
  • The old downtown power plant, built in the 1950s, can generate 4.5 megawatts.
  • When power goes out, count t45. If power isn't restored, it's a KCPL problem
  • The plant can't be started without power. An emergency generator provides that.
  • The new plant is on Orange Street south of the city. The old plant is downtown.

Saturday evening's power outage in Baldwin City provided a good glimpse at one of the biggest reasons to be in the power generation business.

While Baldwin City was without electricity -- during the Big 12 football championship game -- for less than an hour, thousands of other KCPL customers in the area were in the dark well into Sunday morning. Local residents got to see the second half of the game, while those in neighboring towns and rural areas could only watch candlelight.

"I would say it's a good example of why the city stayed in the generation business," said Rob Culley, the city's power plant supervisor who was mostly responsible for the quick turnaround Saturday night. "It was a good decision.

"When you have no generation, you're a slave to generation," said Culley. "You'd have no advantage in price."

Chris Croucher, lead lineman of the utility crew, even went further.

"Plus the response time is so much better than depending on an outside supplier," said Croucher, "them showing up in 3 hours as opposed to us in 30 minutes."

City Administrator Jeff Dingman agreed, but added even more to the equation regarding the decision in the early 2000s for the city to build the new $5.4 million power plant as an upgrade and eventual replacement for the aged facility in downtown.

"It is a more direct way of showing that our own generation can benefit us from time to time," said Dingman. "The more indirect way of showing its benefit is that we have continued to operate the electric utility without a rate increase for at least 5 years now. We are still able to leverage our production capability in order to keep our overall cost of operating the utility from increasing."

The latest outage(s)

Culley's report on Saturday's events showed that a first outage occurred at 6:13 p.m. because of KCPL, which provides all of the city's power except during peak generating times, such as the summer, and other emergencies. It lasted only two to three minutes.

That was followed at 8:27 p.m. by another outage.

"KCPL lost a pole on U.S. Highway 56. A tree blew into it," said Croucher. "Rob started the engines up and carried the town until 11 p.m."

Culley had called KCPL at 8:35 p.m. once he'd reached the power plant. At that point, KCPL was unclear how long the outage would last. About 10 minutes later, Culley called again. KCPL was even more unclear on the outage, he said. By that time, he'd already started "black start" procedures -- the process necessary to crank up the city's generators -- and made the decision to go ahead and start it up.

"At 8:50 p.m., generation was started and we began restoring power to each feeder," Culley said. "By 9:17 p.m., the entire town was back online. We generated the entire city load until KCPL could dispatch a crew to manually place us back on the South Ottawa feed which was approximately 11:40 p.m."

The subject came up at Monday's city council meeting. Culley and Croucher were on hand to explain the outages. The council praised their efforts. Council Member Ken Wagner noted that starting generation isn't just like flipping a switch.

"It takes awhile to bring it up," said Wagner.

"That's from black start to everyone running," Culley said. "That's about as fast as we can do it."

"I think it's huge," said Wagner.

(See related story on "black start" on this page.)

Other outages

Yes, there have been more outages this year. But, not by much.

The "Feeder Outages and Causes" reports for 2005 show four outages, in 2006 there were six and so far in 2007 there have been eight. While no outage is good, those numbers are in line with what other cities experience. They also don't reflect the 2 to 3 minute outages that sometime occur as the result of a dropped feed from KCPL that are quickly handled.

"We try to minimize outages the best we can," said Dingman.

There have been several infamous outages in the past, including one in August that lasted for four hours. Unlike Saturday's outage, the August blackout was more than the new plant could handle. Each of its engines can produce 3,165 megawatts for a total of just over 6.

In the heat of August when KCPL dropped service, the city was using 9 megawatts. The new plant couldn't do that. Saturday's outage was different.

"The total load Saturday was a little over 3 megawatts," said Culley. "By midnight, it had dropped to 2,700 or 2,800.

"I don't mean to justify a four hour outage, but we were over 9 megawatts this summer," he said. "We chose to do what we did because it was the most effective use of our time to get back on KCPL."

In a worst-case scenario, the city's old downtown plant could have been fired up and between the two plants the 9 megawatts could have been generated. But, the old 1950s vintage engines take much more time to get started and aren't always as reliable.

"We've got both plants, but we don't want to do it unless we have to," said Dingman.

If all the engines downtown can be fired up and put online, it adds another 4.5 megawatts of generating power.

But, another even more infamous outage occurred in January of 2005. An ice storm blasted its way through eastern Kansas and KCPL lost power.

The new plant was fired up and provided the city's power needs for 18 hours while the rest of KCPL's customers sat in the cold.

Importance of timing

The city's power plant shined Saturday night while most of the surrounding area was dark. But, it could have been different and shows how timing can be everything.

As a part of routine maintenance, the two new engines had been taken apart recently to examine them for wear and tear and just see how they were holding up. It was the first time that had been done since the plant went online in 2004.

"We had just gotten them back together on Thursday after maintenance," said Culley. "They'd been apart for three weeks."

As to why that was done, it's money.

"We've got a $5 million investment there," said Culley. "You do what you can to protect your investment.

"We'll be doing the same thing on the downtown plant next year," he said.

In the power generation business, timing can be everything. Saturday was yet another example.

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