In the belly of a generating beast

Bruce Stafkey woke suddenly from a sound sleep with a bad feeling; the familiar hum of the air conditioner in his bedroom had stopped - and so had the fan. He thrashed out of his covers, looking for his clothes.

As chief shift operator at the Albany Steam Station, a 400 megawatt power plant just south of New York's capital, he was not supposed to report until 11 p.m., and it was 4:04 on a Thursday afternoon.

But something was wrong, he knew. After all, it was his plant that helped pump electricity north to Albany, south to New York City - and to his own home. And none was coming to his bedroom.

That fact was also starkly apparent to two of Stafkey's colleagues, Adie Johnson and Edward Sullivan. At that moment, they were scrambling in near darkness, deep inside the monolithic brick generating plant, assailed by wailing battery-powered emergency sirens and disorienting red lights flashing on a bank of instrument panels.

Their plant is just a tiny cog in the huge and complex electric-transmission web that, for much of the Northeastern US and parts of Canada, broke down Aug. 14 in the biggest power outage in American history.

But the Albany Steam Station, situated at a strategic geographic point, plays an important role. It is used by Niagara Mohawk Power to stabilize region-wide transmission by pumping out power at a special frequency and voltage, known as "megavars." In that role, the 51-year-old plant was to provide vital support as the grid struggled to reboot.

Chaos at an aging behemoth

Sullivan and Johnson didn't know the magnitude of the power failure, as they jabbed the flashing red buttons to silence the sirens, peering with flashlights at amp meters and other gauges. Both wondered what was going on. Their phones were knocked out and cellphone systems were jammed. This had never happened to either man in decades of experience here.

Both knew the history. Only once since the Albany Steam Station was built in 1952 had it totally lost power and "gone dark" - during a catastrophic 1965 blackout of New York City. That time, the plant had been dark for days. After that, special breaker systems had been put in place at this station and others to protect the generators.

Measured in megawatts, this plant's role on the grid was marginal. The aging steam station would probably be retired within a year or two. Rarely do all four turbine boilers fire up, since they burn through 462,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil a day, making it far more costly to operate than natural-gas-fired turbines like those being built next door by PSEG Power New York, the state's dominant power company.

The steam station here has been hanging by a financial thread. Niagara Mohawk Power sold the station to PSEG three years ago. Niagara Mohawk still contracts to buy power from the steam station as needed, but it is rarely economical. And it can take 12 hours to fire up the station's enormous boilers - versus perhaps three for new gas turbines.

So, at the moment crisis struck, the one-time coal-burning dinosaur was operating at one-quarter capacity. Just one elderly 100 megawatt turbine - the No. 2 unit - was on line, powered by one of the station's four nine-story high boilers.

Still, the plant has one thing going for it: Its location on the grid positions it perfectly to provide grid-stabilizing "pushback power," managers say. Spinning at 3,600 RPMs, the single No. 2 turbine was supplying 85 megawatts of specialty "megavar" power.

Warning: 'Frequency high or low'

That's what it was doing until 26 seconds after 4:04 p.m., when the rasping dot-matrix printer in the control room spat out an ominous "frequency high or low" warning. Just 50 seconds later a protective circuit breaker automatically threw the 115,000-volt main generator breaker down in the switch yard below, disconnecting the turbine and station from the regional grid. The lights went out.

Now, 10 minutes later, checking and rechecking his systems, Mr. Johnson, a 25-year veteran, quietly pondered the black steel breaker handle in front of him at the end of a long panel. Over the handle, a small blue, battery-powered indicator light glowed, showing the backup breaker for the plant was open - leaving the plant off the grid.

Johnson knew twisting the handle clockwise and releasing would cause the metal teeth of a circuit breaker inside a huge gray switch unit outside to snap shut. Reconnecting the plant to the grid, the blue indicator light would flick out and a nearby red one flash on - along with lights in the control room and throughout the plant.

Johnson twisted the handle and released. The meter went to 250 volts, far short of the 2,500 volts expected. Lights in the hallway looked "like a bunch of fireflies," barely visible down to the distant recesses of the station. Johnson tried again. Again nothing.

Nine-story turbine at risk

For the second time in its history, the plant was dead in the water.

With the turbine in automatic shutdown, it would take 20 minutes to slow to a near stop. At that point, an electric motor was supposed to take over and continue to spin the hot turbine until it cooled, so its huge weight would not bend or warp its central shaft. One problem: the motor that turned the turbine required alternating current that was cut off. Only a bank of batteries was left. Not enough power to restart any of the three cold turbines. And not the right kind of power to run the motor to rotate the hot turbine, which would be damaged unless the power came back on pretty soon.

That's what Wayne Bolton-Engelhardt was thinking about when he barrelled into the control room three minutes after the lights went out in his boss's office. As senior operations supervisor, he was in charge of the entire plant from 3 to 11 p.m. He had come at a trot through darkened hallways, willing himself not to run the 250 feet, so as not to alarm anyone.

"I'm looking at all the meters, and the voltage indicators I'm seeing are just ludicrous," he says. The phones were dead. Cellphones produced busy signals.

Desperate to reconnect

"We were flying blind," Bolton-Engelhardt says. "At first we thought it was just our plant that was down. Finally we figured out the whole thing had collapsed like dominos."

Finally, one person got through on a cellphone. The blackout was huge, extending to Detroit. Though shocked by the news, Bolton-Engelhardt realized he had little choice. If he didn't try to connect to the grid soon, he risked warping the shaft of the hot turbine - and he might run out of battery power that kept another system constantly lubricating the turbine bearings. The batteries also provided power to an emergency system that sealed hydrogen, used for heat transfer, inside the turbine casings.

"I was worried about the batteries, because if they failed, we would have hydrogen leaking out into the turbine room," he says. "Once you mix air it becomes explosive. It was not something I really wanted."

They were down to their last chance, the three men knew. Bolton-Engelhardt, with 40 years experience at the plant, walked with Johnson and Sullivan to the end of the panel to another rarely used breaker switch. In theory, it was supposed to connect the steam station to the secondary backup source, a direct line to Spire Falls hydro plant just north.

Would the hydro plant be on line? Would its power come in at the right frequency and voltage? The digital readouts were gyrating wildly. Johnson hesitated. If he was wrong or connected the plant at the wrong electrical frequency, it could damage the huge turbine spinning ever slower in vast room below.

'Alive' again

He twisted it, and released. Nothing happened. Immediately he reached forward, twisted it again, and released. And this time, seven seconds later, lights flickered, then came on. The plant was alive. Within hours, Bolton-Engelhardt had doubled his staff on site. Now in contact with New York power authorities, the Steam Station was getting the call for all the power it could push out the door. Turbine No. 2 was quickly spun up and was on line by 7 p.m. that night. The others would take longer.

While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered hope Thursday afternoon for power back in a few hours, the reality at this plant and others was different.

Only gradually were the enormous nine-story boilers each filled with 40,000 gallons of water, purified and pre-heated to avoid damage. Finally, a weary Bolton-Engelhardt left at 1 a.m. Friday morning, after all three boilers were lit and heating well. By 7 a.m. that morning, Stafkey and his coworkers made sure the breakers were thrown connecting the other three turbines - each pushing out 85 megawatts. Soon after, power in and around Albany began to come back on.

As of Sunday, Albany Steam Station was still performing near peak output - though perhaps for its last time. "She showed she could do it when it counted," Bolton-Engelhardt says. "Pretty good in a pinch."

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