How a 1920s Power Plant Survived Winter Storm Uri

 

The last five years I’ve managed a small power plant in Missouri for a local municipal utility. The original section of the plant was built in 1928 and has been added onto in two separate additions, most recently in 1976. The plant houses nine dual fuel (diesel and natural gas) generators, ranging from a 1946 model to 1976.

Our utility is part of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and purchases its energy from the SPP Integrated Market in addition to contracts with other power providers. Being older engines, our units are rarely economical “in the market”. We maintain the plant because, in order to participate in SPP, each utility must maintain a level of “firm capacity” to “back up” its energy needs; and these units are an affordable way of meeting our requirements. If a disaster struck, the plant could also provide some form of emergency power supply.

Outside a few maintenance runs here or there or the occasional high price market day, our generators sit idle. The newest, most efficient units may run 75 hours a year, the oldest 25. In September of 2020, we ran all nine units together for one full hour, the first time that had been done in anybody’s memory.

This brings us to Winter Storm Uri. It was probably the Thursday prior to Valentine’s Day that things started to heat up. The cold temperatures were already pushing down into the middle of the country and forecasts of increased demands in natural gas began pushing prices up. As the cold and ice swept across Oklahoma and Texas, pipelines, gas wells, and gas power plants not built for such weather failed. Within a couple of days, the gas price went from ~$3/MMBtu to $300/MMBtu (even more in some areas). This unbelievable increase led to a subsequent increase in market energy prices. To make matters worse, coal power plants also froze solid (including one of our contract units) and wind production tumbled.

We had been notified of the gas increases that Friday and was being urged by our marketers to be prepared to run our plant. Fortunately for us, we had been sitting on over half a million gallons of diesel which literally overnight became one of the most economical fuel sources on the market (on straight diesel our units are roughly $175/MWh, the SPP market averaged $17 all of 2020). I was hesitant if not terrified. We weren’t staffed nor ready to generate like they were insinuating we may have to. With temperatures forecasted as low as the negative teens, something was going to break; either the plant or our employees.

We started and ran a few units on Saturday to hedge some costs. After the market cleared on Saturday we couldn’t believe the prices for Sunday: over $3000/MWh around the clock! (As I write this, prices are in the $20s). We started units back up on Valentine’s Day morning and didn’t shut down until the following Friday once temperatures warmed back up and wind production rebounded. On two separate occasions, we ran all 9 units, one for 15 hours straight and the other for 21. Our oldest unit ran the longest continuous run at 77.6 hours. We burned just over 217,000 gallons of diesel that week, more than we had burned in any year since 2001 (which was an abnormally large year itself). More generation in that one week than every year since 2013. To top it off: no major breakdowns.

We were astonished and exhausted. We had borrowed two other ex-plant employees from other departments to help work overnight. Our Maintenance Foreman and I put in several 15+ hour days. We learned things we would have never been able to learn had it not been for that. I never want to do it again though.

Even with our generation, we weren’t able to avoid blackouts. Tuesday morning the 16th, SPP issued an EEA 3, their highest level of alarm. At an EEA 3, the generation in SPP is not enough to meet demand and load must be shed, the first time in their 80 year history. We were contacted by our area coordinator to shed load at approximately 7 AM and our rolling blackouts lasted for about two and a half hours. I had the unfortunate task of opening and closing the breakers, with nine generators roaring in the background, and a control room full of managers and operators frantically trying to come up with a blackout plan and communicate with priority customers ahead of the outages. It was one of the most hectic situations I’ve been a part of.

Now the nightmare is behind us but there is still a lot to figure out. Many communities and utilities across the central United States are hurting but mine is not one of them. I’ve seen stories of area utilities burning through an entire year’s budget that week in fuel purchases alone. Some have already declared bankruptcy. We still have to wait to see how the financials will pan out but we have good reason to believe we’ll come out feeling very good about ourselves and how we were able to serve our customers.

Below is a video we put together last year about the plant:

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A fine post! A fascinating look behind the scenes, well explained and timely. 

    • #1
  2. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A fine post! A fascinating look behind the scenes, well explained and timely.

    Thank you!

    • #2
  3. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Outstanding!  Thanks for explaining all that.  I learned a lot.

    You have a fascinating job.  

    • #3
  4. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Outstanding! Thanks for explaining all that. I learned a lot.

    You have a fascinating job.

    Thank you so much!

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    It’s interesting to compare the cost of having this plant available for backup versus the cost of the battery alternative.

    If this plant can generate 36 megawatts, as the video says…and if we want to be able to supply that amount of power for 24 hours…then that would require 864,000 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which I’ll estimate at about $180 million, including power conversion electronics.

    According to the EIA, you could build an engine-driven plant of 40 MW today for a capital cost of $72 million.  But the lifetime of that plant, as demonstrated by the case of this Carthage plant, will be very long…whereas batteries aren’t going to be good for more than about 10 years before they need to be replaced.

    AND…if the power is needed for more than 24 hours, the engine-driven plant can just keep running (assuming it has or can get the fuel needed), whereas the battery plant will be depleted.  Of course, you could just go ahead and buy enough battery capacity for 72 hours, which would cost you about $500 million…

    • #5
  6. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    David Foster (View Comment):

    It’s interesting to compare the cost of having this plant available for backup versus the cost of the battery alternative.

    If this plant can generate 36 megawatts, as the video says…and if we want to be able to supply that amount of power for 24 hours…then that would require 864,000 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which I’ll estimate at about $180 million, including power conversion electronics.

    According to the EIA, you could build an engine-driven plant of 40 MW today for a capital cost of $72 million. But the lifetime of that plant, as demonstrated by the case of this Carthage plant, will be very long…whereas batteries aren’t going to be good for more than about 10 years before they need to be replaced.

    AND…if the power is needed for more than 24 hours, the engine-driven plant can just keep running (assuming it has or can get the fuel needed), whereas the battery plant will be depleted. Of course, you could just go ahead and buy enough battery capacity for 72 hours, which would cost you about $500 million…

    That’s why I’m a proponent of an “all of the above” energy mix. Economics and reality will determine the breakdowns. Wind power has and still is being subsidized into existence. Solar is becoming more competitive on its own but harder to scale without storage. Gas and coal have shown their weaknesses. Lowly nuclear and hydro are two of the safest, cleanest, and most reliable sources but get little love. 

    It’s easy to get too worked up over a once in 50 or 100 year weather event though.

     

    • #6
  7. Hugh Member
    Hugh
    @Hugh

    Fascinating!  Thanks you.

    Candidate for MPOTW

    • #7
  8. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    Hugh (View Comment):

    Fascinating! Thanks you.

    Candidate for MPOTW

    Thank you!

    • #8
  9. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    David Foster (View Comment):
    If this plant can generate 36 megawatts, as the video says…and if we want to be able to supply that amount of power for 24 hours…then that would require 864,000 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which I’ll estimate at about $180 million, including power conversion electronics.

    I heard from somewhere that if you had every Lithium battery that Tesla uses in a year, you could power Texas for about 1 hour.   Batteries are not scalable–there are just not enough children in the Congo and slaves in China to make enough batteries.  Batteries use about half the Lithium and Cobalt mined each year without ramping up electric cars and grid storage.  

     

    In Austin our largest water treatment plant had a tree fall on the electric line and that took the plant offline costing the city half its capacity.  With leaks from busted pipes many of us were without water for 4 days.  They had a backup power supply, but the switch was “52 years old and nobody know how to engage it”.  Eventually they found somebody that knew the old tech, but it was too late to save the water supply.

    • #9
  10. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):
    If this plant can generate 36 megawatts, as the video says…and if we want to be able to supply that amount of power for 24 hours…then that would require 864,000 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which I’ll estimate at about $180 million, including power conversion electronics.

    I heard from somewhere that if you had every Lithium battery that Tesla uses in a year, you could power Texas for about 1 hour. Batteries are not scalable–there are just not enough children in the Congo and slaves in China to make enough batteries. Batteries use about half the Lithium and Cobalt mined each year without ramping up electric cars and grid storage.

     

    In Austin our largest water treatment plant had a tree fall on the electric line and that took the plant offline costing the city half its capacity. With leaks from busted pipes many of us were without water for 4 days. They had a backup power supply, but the switch was “52 years old and nobody know how to engage it”. Eventually they found somebody that knew the old tech, but it was too late to save the water supply.

    “52 years old and nobody knows how to engage it” is a lot more common than you wish to believe and it’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

    • #10
  11. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    The Left is always going backwards.  Windmills?

    This makes me happy that most of our Pacific Northwest energy is supplied by hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  However, if you go over to Eastern Washington, you often see:

    Somehow, hydro-power is just not “renewable” enough.

    • #11
  12. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    The Left is always going backwards. Windmills?

    This makes me happy that most of our Pacific Northwest energy is supplied by hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. However, if you go over to Eastern Washington, you often see:

    Somehow, hydro-power is just not “renewable” enough.

    Salmon are more important than people.

    • #12
  13. T.C. Member
    T.C.
    @TCNYMEX

    you mentioned that your plants are dual fired, Diesel and Natty.

    back around 20 years ago, i had an association with a dual-fired plant in Everett massachusetts. A combustion engineering steam boiler setup that we could fire with six oil, or Natty.  While it could run 100% on natural gas, we mostly ran it on six oil; using some natural gas guns to squeeze an extra 50 megawatts out of it if the iso felt it needed it.

    I’m curious, the dual fired diesel and Natty units that you spoke of. I assume the ones that were built in the 1920s were steam boilers, but was the one built in the 1970s a dual-fired turbine?

    • #13
  14. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):
    If this plant can generate 36 megawatts, as the video says…and if we want to be able to supply that amount of power for 24 hours…then that would require 864,000 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which I’ll estimate at about $180 million, including power conversion electronics.

    I heard from somewhere that if you had every Lithium battery that Tesla uses in a year, you could power Texas for about 1 hour. Batteries are not scalable–there are just not enough children in the Congo and slaves in China to make enough batteries. Batteries use about half the Lithium and Cobalt mined each year without ramping up electric cars and grid storage.

     

    In Austin our largest water treatment plant had a tree fall on the electric line and that took the plant offline costing the city half its capacity. With leaks from busted pipes many of us were without water for 4 days. They had a backup power supply, but the switch was “52 years old and nobody know how to engage it”. Eventually they found somebody that knew the old tech, but it was too late to save the water supply.

    “52 years old and nobody knows how to engage it” is a lot more common than you wish to believe and it’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

    I used to work for a major electric utility a bit farther to the south. Have seen that in practice.

    • #14
  15. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    T.C. (View Comment):

    you mentioned that your plants are dual fired, Diesel and Natty.

    back around 20 years ago, i had an association with a dual-fired plant in Everett massachusetts. A combustion engineering steam boiler setup that we could fire with six oil, or Natty. While it could run 100% on natural gas, we mostly ran it on six oil; using some natural gas guns to squeeze an extra 50 megawatts out of it if the iso felt it needed it.

    I’m curious, the dual fired diesel and Natty units that you spoke of. I assume the ones that were built in the 1920s were steam boilers, but was the one built in the 1970s a dual-fired turbine?

    All 9 are compression ignited internal combustion engines. They start on diesel and can either run straight fuel oil or convert to natural gas with about 10% fuel oil for pilot fuel.

    For environmental compliance reasons, the 5 oldest are only “certified” on fuel oil. The 4 newest on both fuel and natural gas. (The 5 oldest are two cycles and run considerably cooler than the 4 cycles which makes exhaust temperatures harder to come by, and maintaining high exhaust temps is the goal).

    Typically gas is much cheaper than diesel, not this time.

    • #15
  16. T.C. Member
    T.C.
    @TCNYMEX

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    T.C. (View Comment):

    you mentioned that your plants are dual fired, Diesel and Natty.

    back around 20 years ago, i had an association with a dual-fired plant in Everett massachusetts. A combustion engineering steam boiler setup that we could fire with six oil, or Natty. While it could run 100% on natural gas, we mostly ran it on six oil; using some natural gas guns to squeeze an extra 50 megawatts out of it if the iso felt it needed it.

    I’m curious, the dual fired diesel and Natty units that you spoke of. I assume the ones that were built in the 1920s were steam boilers, but was the one built in the 1970s a dual-fired turbine?

    All 9 are compression ignited internal combustion engines. They start on diesel and can either run straight fuel oil or convert to natural gas with about 10% fuel oil for pilot fuel.

    For environmental compliance reasons, the 5 oldest are only “certified” on fuel oil. The 4 newest on both fuel and natural gas. (The 5 oldest are two cycles and run considerably cooler than the 4 cycles which makes exhaust temperatures harder to come by, and maintaining high exhaust temps is the goal).

    Typically gas is much cheaper than diesel, not this time.

    wow, dual fuel reciprocating gensets. last time I saw something like that was 20 years ago in South Asia.

     

    can those provide Black start capability?

    • #16
  17. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    T.C. (View Comment):

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    T.C. (View Comment):

    you mentioned that your plants are dual fired, Diesel and Natty.

    back around 20 years ago, i had an association with a dual-fired plant in Everett massachusetts. A combustion engineering steam boiler setup that we could fire with six oil, or Natty. While it could run 100% on natural gas, we mostly ran it on six oil; using some natural gas guns to squeeze an extra 50 megawatts out of it if the iso felt it needed it.

    I’m curious, the dual fired diesel and Natty units that you spoke of. I assume the ones that were built in the 1920s were steam boilers, but was the one built in the 1970s a dual-fired turbine?

    All 9 are compression ignited internal combustion engines. They start on diesel and can either run straight fuel oil or convert to natural gas with about 10% fuel oil for pilot fuel.

    For environmental compliance reasons, the 5 oldest are only “certified” on fuel oil. The 4 newest on both fuel and natural gas. (The 5 oldest are two cycles and run considerably cooler than the 4 cycles which makes exhaust temperatures harder to come by, and maintaining high exhaust temps is the goal).

    Typically gas is much cheaper than diesel, not this time.

    wow, dual fuel reciprocating gensets. last time I saw something like that was 20 years ago in South Asia.

     

    can those provide Black start capability?

    Yes sir!

    • #17
  18. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    What an incredible post.  Thanks for sharing.  It is comforting to know that there are still some power plants out there ready to burn the diesel for those times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. 

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    When I was a movie projectionist, almost every booth had a side room with a motor generator set, to generate the high current DC that was essential to the smooth light of carbon arc lamps, avoiding the flickering timing of 60 Hz current that formed rolling fluttery interference patterns with 24 frames a second of film. I’d hit the start button just before noon and hear the noisy whine of the system come up to speed. Then I could slam a fireproof door and forget about it for the next twelve hours. By your standards, these were tiny installations, of course.

    • #19
  20. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    This is a very cool post – informative and compelling. Thank you!

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    can those provide Black start capability?

    Yes sir!

    What means “Black start?”  And how do you start a turbine? Does it have a gas motor to get it moving?  I presume you have to do something to get it warmed up gradually.

    I’m thinking of the kind of gas turbine that was made in a plant where I was a Pinkerton guard for a while in the mid 70s. (I kept doing some of that for a while even after I got my first computer job.) I seem to remember long cylinders, maybe 30 feet long, that were worked on a lathe, and then had blades attached.  I never saw one in operation; just the naked cylinders with or without blades. Business was slow then, but it was said South American countries such as Brazil were the main customers. Brown-Boveri, a Swiss company, owned the plant. Anyhow, each of those would have been quite a mass of metal to get warmed up.

    It has been a while since I’ve been around the smell of cutting oil, but if I was it would bring back memories.

     

     

    • #21
  22. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm
    @PrestonStorm

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    can those provide Black start capability?

    Yes sir!

    What means “Black start?” And how do you start a turbine? Does it have a gas motor to get it moving? I presume you have to do something to get it warmed up gradually.

    I’m thinking of the kind of gas turbine that was made in a plant where I was a Pinkerton guard for a while in the mid 70s. (I kept doing some of that for a while even after I got my first computer job.) I seem to remember long cylinders, maybe 30 feet long, that were worked on a lathe, and then had blades attached. I never saw one in operation; just the naked cylinders with or without blades. Business was slow then, but it was said South American countries such as Brazil were the main customers. Brown-Boveri, a Swiss company, owned the plant. Anyhow, each of those would have been quite a mass of metal to get warmed up.

    It has been a while since I’ve been around the smell of cutting oil, but if I was it would bring back memories.

     

     

    By black start he means if the plant can start without power. The generators require auxiliary power to run their systems. Our engines start with compressed air that we store inside the plant and the diesel fires upon compression in the cylinder. Once the engine fires, the generator begins producing voltage and to a degree support itself. Our plant can be disconnected and power up before adding more distribution load to it.

    • #22
  23. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I bet some places are wishing they had had some “ancient” 1920s-1970s technology around last month, and maybe not quite so many windmills.

    Also, last I heard the Pacific Northwest is still removing hydro power facilities, while the Trojan nuclear facility was removed shortly before I left Oregon, almost 30 years ago, and not replaced.

    Lots of foolish people up there, which was one of the reasons I got out.

    • #23
  24. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Hugh (View Comment):

    Fascinating! Thanks you.

    Candidate for MPOTW

    This does sound like something @jameslileks would enjoy, I wonder if he ever saw it?

    • #24
  25. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I bet some places are wishing they had had some “ancient” 1920s-1970s technology around last month, and maybe not quite so many windmills.

    Also, last I heard the Pacific Northwest is still removing hydro power facilities, while the Trojan nuclear facility was removed shortly before I left Oregon, almost 30 years ago, and not replaced.

    Lots of foolish people up there, which was one of the reasons I got out.

    That sucks!  In 1978/9, while my father-in-law was alive, living near Portland and working at Trojan we went up to visit.  We toured a very impressive dam and watched salmon in their fish ladder.  Really cool!

    This is not progress.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Chuck (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I bet some places are wishing they had had some “ancient” 1920s-1970s technology around last month, and maybe not quite so many windmills.

    Also, last I heard the Pacific Northwest is still removing hydro power facilities, while the Trojan nuclear facility was removed shortly before I left Oregon, almost 30 years ago, and not replaced.

    Lots of foolish people up there, which was one of the reasons I got out.

    That sucks! In 1978/9, while my father-in-law was alive, living near Portland and working at Trojan we went up to visit. We toured a very impressive dam and watched salmon in their fish ladder. Really cool!

    This is not progress.

    Of course not.  “Progressive” has always been a lie.

    • #26
  27. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I bet some places are wishing they had had some “ancient” 1920s-1970s technology around last month, and maybe not quite so many windmills.

    Also, last I heard the Pacific Northwest is still removing hydro power facilities, while the Trojan nuclear facility was removed shortly before I left Oregon, almost 30 years ago, and not replaced.

    Lots of foolish people up there, which was one of the reasons I got out.

    There is a push by some environmental enthusiasts to dismantle four dams on the Snake River. I don’t think it has much momentum at this point. I haven’t heard anything about removing any of the big dams on the Columbia. There have been a few dams on smaller tributaries removed. They are built with 100 year licenses. When the licenses came up for renewal new restrictions were so expensive the operators said no thanks.

    Oregon is closing its only coal fired plant at Boardman soon, which is shortsighted.

    • #27
  28. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Captain French (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I bet some places are wishing they had had some “ancient” 1920s-1970s technology around last month, and maybe not quite so many windmills.

    Also, last I heard the Pacific Northwest is still removing hydro power facilities, while the Trojan nuclear facility was removed shortly before I left Oregon, almost 30 years ago, and not replaced.

    Lots of foolish people up there, which was one of the reasons I got out.

    There is a push by some environmental enthusiasts to dismantle four dams on the Snake River. I don’t think it has much momentum at this point. I haven’t heard anything about removing any of the big dams on the Columbia. There have been a few dams on smaller tributaries removed. They are built with 100 year licenses. When the licenses came up for renewal new restrictions were so expensive the operators said no thanks.

    Oregon is closing its only coal fired plant at Boardman soon, which is shortsighted.

    Oregon is getting to be a lot like the People’s Republic of California, which isn’t really a surprise considering how many people “flee” the hole they’ve made of PRC to Oregon and then start the same BS again.  They apparently want to have no power generation of their own, and expect/rely on surrounding states to support them.

    • #28
  29. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I read that some people in Texas got electric bills for last month up to $10,000.

    Because they signed up for “market pricing” to save money and during the freeze storm the wholesale rates went WAY up.

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    And I hope those diesel tanks have been refilled!  You never know when it might be needed again.

    • #30