New equipment, program management process improves reliabilityIt’s tough to see Ashe Substation from the road. The 500-kilovolt facility is dwarfed by the region’s only nuclear plant, the Columbia Generating Station, which sits on 1,080 acres of desert near Richland, Wash. A recent Bonneville Power Administration capital improvement project improved the reliable delivery of power from Columbia. After all, Ashe’s most important job is connecting one of BPA’s largest energy sources to the region’s transmission grid. Ashe also connects to four other substations. The hum and crackle of all this electricity hovers over crews performing complex, calculated work here every single day. So, it’s no surprise that during Columbia’s 2013 refueling outage, the flurry of activity to complete the project was a sight to behold.Crews had just 12 days to finish installing two new 500-kilovolt breakers in a new bay for the line carrying electricity from Columbia, and reconfiguring the existing bay. It was the shortest outage window yet. No fewer than 60 vehicles which included boom trucks and bucket trucks dotted the yard. Crews removed equipment, poured concrete, welded bus, spliced cables, mounted gear, tested setups, and moved overhead lines. And that was just outside; additional intricate work took place inside. “I felt like a mouse in a maze trying to work my way through people, old equipment, new equipment, test equipment, weaving my way through, “ said Garth Lien, one of two Ashe Substation operators on site during the outage. “It took a lot of focus to identify the appropriate circuits.” Before this $7.5 million bundle of projects, the nuclear plant’s line shared a bay at Ashe with BPA’s Slatt line connected to its substation in Arlington, Ore. When a bird’s nest or a lightning strike would trip the Slatt line, Columbia would feel the negative impact. There was also a risk that if the breaker-and-a-half scheme that supported both the Ashe-Slatt and Ashe-Columbia lines failed, a scram would occur—the term used when the nuclear plant has an unplanned outage and loses its 1,100 megawatts of generation. Thankfully, that never happened. While it took only one day for the Pasco crew to move Columbia’s line to its own bay during the outage, the amount of work and coordination that went into preparing for that task was enormous. One BPA electrical crew was stationed at Ashe for a full year to install the new bay and prepare for final connections during the outage. The control house, it turned out, was one of the oldest mini-console control systems at BPA, according to Chief Substation Operator Ron Alexander.“We were running out of parts to fix it,” he said. Ashe Substation has been providing electricity transfer service since 1977. The original configuration was intended to support the two other nuclear plants that were never completed. Increased awareness of the importance of nuclear plant reliability spurred discussions about a reconfiguration as far back as 10 years ago. Fast forward to the project’s “green light” two years ago and find a year of planning followed by a year of preparation. Site visits by design teams and monthly coordination meetings with Ashe personnel resulted in 15 separate work orders.
"It started out with a need for a new bay and then the need to move a line,” said BPA Project Manager Kelly Gardner. “Then, it blossomed into all of this other work that needed to be done.”
More racks were needed for equipment to meet new standards. Seismic upgrades were needed in the yard. Mini-consoles in the control house were obsolete; there wasn’t any room for all the new parts so a new annex was needed. A project this comprehensive required early planning of methodical strategies and a lot of communication.“Everything had to be sequenced just right. The designs had to be ready, and the parts had to be available in the right order,” said BPA Project Manager Amanda Williams. “Add to that the increased security at a nuclear plant, and that’s a significant coordination effort.”Although one new operational change has made this important project run more smoothly: a lead project manager. An excellent example of operational excellenceThis is the first time BPA Project Manager Charla Burke has performed the lead role of coordinating other project managers. The new operational technique is more efficient because it allows for crews to execute work simultaneously or sequentially with equipment and crews already in place. On major capital projects—having one lead to coordinate all of the moving parts—allows the agency to save both time and money.“The complexities come in with so many details to manage,” Burke said. “But, the biggest factor was the deadline of the refueling outage and putting Columbia back in service on time. It costs big money every day that Columbia is down.”A big part of the job is making sure Columbia’s needs are met, and those needs are quite unique. A nuclear engineer operates much differently from an electrical engineer. A utility is more of a manual operation, whereas a nuclear plant is automated; every step requires checks and balances.“Last fall, we were able to have one of Columbia’s operations crews come through and tour the way we do things. That’s something that had never been done before. Then we did the same over at Columbia,” said Alexander adding that the learning curve was high for both crews. After all, the two agencies operate under a completely different set of rules. “We do a lot of the same things very differently,” said Fred Stock, SPC District Engineer for Ashe District. The upgrade also means that BPA and Columbia can work more flexibility. There is less need for large amounts of coordination while still providing the ability to work safely.“Anything we can do to maximize the work that gets done is extremely helpful for us, for operations, and for the whole system,” said Burke.