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Chief engineers reunite, reminisce for BPA's 75th
6/29/2012 12:00 AM
Sol Schultz pioneered the role of chief engineer at BPA, and his spirit - if not his slide rule - was in the room at a recent reunion of his successors.
Under Schultz's expert eye from 1940 to 1954, BPA constructed its first 4,000 miles of transmission lines - more than enough to cross the United States. That laid the foundation for a network of lines that today is long enough to reach India and back.
Ten chief engineers have followed Schultz's lead, expanding, improving and preparing the system for the next generation. In late May, all seven living chief engineers reunited to celebrate BPA's 75th anniversary at the Dittmer Building at the Ross Complex in Vancouver, Wash.
Although some had never met, there was clearly a solidarity between them.
"How many of you still own a slide rule?" asked Hardev Juj, current chief engineer. Slide rules essentially became obsolete in the 1970s with the advent of electronic calculators. But every engineer in the room raised a hand and laughed.
"I keep one in my car to calculate gas mileage," said Marv Klinger, chief engineer from 1980 to 1987.
Klinger led two upgrades to the Pacific Northwest-Pacific Southwest Intertie. He recalled conversations with Eugene Starr, BPA's second chief engineer (1954-1961), about the power surplus BPA faced in the 1980s. "Gene and I would meet for lunch and kick ideas around. At the time, we had more power than we could get rid of. We talked about how to get the power down to California. That's how the upgrades got started."
Those upgrades more than doubled the capacity of BPA's only direct current line - an 846-mile link between The Dalles, Ore., and Los Angeles. The project increased power sales, displaced thermal generation and improved transmission reliability throughout the West, and it didn't even require new lines. BPA instead used new technology - semiconductor-based switches that convert AC to DC much more efficiently than the original mercury arc tube converters. By 1989, BPA had increased the capacity of the line from 1,440 megawatts to 3,100 MW.
Starr, a world leader in long-distance high-voltage transmission, was a consultant on the DC upgrade. In fact, he served as a consultant to every chief engineer and BPA administrator until his death in 1988. BPA honored Starr by naming the facilities at the Celilo Converter Station, the northern end of the DC line, in his honor. BPA also named an Administrator's Excellence Award - the Eugene C. Starr award for Technical Achievement - after him.
Chief engineer Ralph Gens encouraged creativity with a little friendly competition. The team that designed the best braking resistor - equipment to momentarily slow a generator - at Chief Joseph Dam would get to build it. The winning design became known as "the toaster" for its resemblance to the inside of the household appliance.
Toilet paper and tin foil
Brian Silverstein, former chief engineer (2005-2011) and current Senior Vice President of Transmission Services, recalled hearing about a paper Starr presented in the 1940s at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The response: "You mean we're going to put electric power through toilet paper and tin foil?"
That's essentially what Starr proposed, and it's one of the things for which he became known. When you put a layer of insulation - the paper (treated with oil) - between two layers of conductor - the tin foil - you get a voltage-storing device called a capacitor. Today, huge banks of capacitors are installed along lengthy transmission lines to help keep the power system stable.
"Without series capacitors, the 500-kV alternating current system, stretching all the way from 600 miles north of the Canadian border to the Mexican border, would not have been technically feasible," wrote Ralph Gens, chief engineer from 1977 to 1980, in a tribute to Starr.
Which way hurts least?
One of the toughest responsibilities of the chief engineer might be deciding where to put a new transmission line. There's no such thing as the perfect route, so it comes down to finding the one that will hurt the least.
"I left you those 500-kilovolt lines into Montana, didn't I?" Gens asked Klinger.
"Those were with me the whole time I was here," Klinger grumbled.
One thing about the chief engineer position: Someone else will build what you planned. "It takes a minimum of seven years from the time we start planning to when we build," Juj said. The McNary-John Day line was completed during Juj's tenure, "but that tells me Vickie (VanZandt) must have started that one."
The lines that Klinger inherited - known as Colstrip - were the segments of a 350-mile electrical highway to export power from a huge coal plant in eastern Montana to five utilities in Washington, Oregon and Montana. Potential routes crossed river valleys, prized fishing streams, national forests, farmlands, rangeland and mountain ranges - all of which residents wanted to protect unaltered.
The only way to get everyone on board with the new line was to route it according to least impact rather than pure engineering. Crews built the line through high elevations, rough terrain and deep snow. It led BPA to construct its only gas-insulated, indoor substation, called Taft, high in the mountains.
"Whose idea was it to put a substation at 6,000 feet?" Silverstein asked.
"Must have been Marv's," said Chuck Clark, chief engineer from 1988 to 1994.
Kenneth Klein (1965-1970), Eugene Starr (1954-1961), Sol Schultz (1939-1954), Don Hodel (BPA Administrator, 1972-1977), Eugene White (1961-1965), George Bingham and Ralph Gens
What makes a good chief?
"To me, one of the criteria is you have to be innovative. Schultz set the bar for that," Gens said. "You have to trust your staff to do the right thing. He had a habit of walking around to ask junior engineers what they were working on. I did that when I became chief engineer, and it was the bane of supervisory engineers. But that was the only way to know what was going on."
Earlier in his career, Gens was involved in BPA's high-voltage engineering evaluations. The agency was planning to build a new transmission line between Chief Joseph Dam and Snohomish, Wash. Gens had done studies that showed the line could be built at 345-kV, and it would lower transmission costs. But the budget document had been prepared for a new 230-kV design.
Gens took the results of that study to his managers, but all he heard was, "That's very nice, Ralph. Now put that away. The decision is 230-kV."
One day the chief engineer, on one of his walks around, stopped by Gens' desk and spotted the graph.
"What is that?" Shultz asked.
"That shows that 345-kV is better than 230-kV for that line," Gens replied.
"Oh," Shultz said, and he walked away.
The line was built at 345-kV. It was the first 345-kV line and the highest operating voltage in the U.S.
"That's the value of the boss mixing with the staff, because things can get filtered, creativity can get buried," Gens said.
When Gens became chief engineer, he carried on the practice of encouraging creativity. He needed to install some new technology, a braking resistor, at Chief Joseph Substation, near the dam on the upper Columbia River in Washington. Braking resistors are part of a protection system that kicks in during a fault. They act as a momentary brake on the generators that otherwise would accelerate, taking energy off the system and keeping it stable.
Gens told the Substation Design and Transmission Line Design groups, "Each of you is to design one, and whoever comes up with the best design gets to build it." The Transmission Line Design team prevailed.
"It was a bit of a shock, because it was a new challenge for them. But I think that's why they were able to be more creative. And that was the point," Gens said.
The design became known as the toaster, "because that's what it looks like," Gens said.
"It's the only one like it in the world, to my knowledge," said George Bingham, chief engineer from 1970 to 1977.
The Chief Joe breaking resistor puts a very large load on the system for a half a second. It can consume 1,440 MW - more than the output of Bonneville Dam. It's only capable of staying on for 3 seconds - beyond that, it would destroy itself. The toaster played an important role in a project in the 1980s and 1990s to increase the capacity of the Pacific Northwest-Pacific Southwest Intertie.
Former chief engineer Eugene Starr was known for developing series capacitors. These temporary voltage storing devices, installed along transmission lines, help keep the system voltage stable. Without them, the 500-kV current system wouldn't have been technically feasible.
The Dittmer Control Center was considered futuristic when it was built in the 1970s. It has since been remodeled and contains a massive video wall that can be reconfigured as needed to display real-time data.
A look at the glass cockpit
The retired chiefs had not seen the Dittmer Control Center since it was modernized in 2008, so Silverstein and Juj took them to the viewing room.
"What's with all this glass cockpit stuff?" Clark asked, referring to a massive video wall, which can be reconfigured as needed to display real-time data from BPA's system.
The new control center wasn't the only change the retired chief engineers learned about. Silverstein talked about two new challenges.
"One is mandatory reliability compliance. It used to be voluntary - I call that the deep, dark secret of the utility industry. But after the 2003 East Coast blackout, mandatory standards came down hard," Silverstein said. "The other new challenge has been balancing variable wind energy."
Creativity, again, helped the agency tackle that challenge. "Staff in Power Services developed an in-house wind generation forecasting system, and we came up with an innovative way to study requests for transmission service - mostly to integrate wind resources - called Network Open Season," Silverstein said.
The challenges ahead may seem daunting. "But engineers are a different species," Juj said. "We want the challenge, and we'll make it work. Period."
Another issue they are tackling is managing an aging system. "We have some equipment that is now 75 years old," Silverstein said.
Juj described BPA's new program to improve asset planning. "For the first time, we are getting funding for replacements with a three to five year lead time, and we are matching work with our resources by planning for workload and design time two years in advance."
One outcome of the asset plans is the placement of a fourth transformer unit at critical substations. Large transformer banks are typically assembled from three individual units, or phases. "There's a long lead time for new transformers - sometimes it takes 24 to 30 months because nobody makes them in the U.S. Now we are more prepared for emergencies."
Not your grandfather's transmission system
When George Bingham was chief engineer (1970-1977), the Dittmer Control Center was under construction. It was the "computer center" that could control the entire BPA system from a single location - a major change from how BPA operated in the past.
The control center has evolved over the years, and former chief engineer Vickie VanZandt (1995-2005) is helping to take it even further. Now retired from BPA, she is leading a project at the Western Electricity Coordinating Council to place hundreds of phasor measurement units throughout the Western Interconnection. PMUs take measurements of the system up to 60 times per second. They can give operators an early warning of problems on the grid.
"If these were in place in the eastern interconnection in 2003, there may not have been a blackout," VanZandt said.
As part of that project, BPA is developing response-based controls. It will take automatic control actions when problems arise based on the measurements and the desired response to get to a secure operating point.
The retired chief engineers were in awe of the system's transformation, and of the potential for the future.
"This is not your grandfather's transmission system," VanZandt said.
Despite the ways the system has changed, some things have stayed the same, they agreed.
"There's camaraderie among us," Gens said.
VanZandt nodded, "Different issues, same pressure."
Names and dates
Hardev Juj (2011- )
Brian Silverstein (2005-2011)
Vickie VanZandt (1995-2005)
Chuck Clark (1988-1994)
Marv Klinger (1980-1987)
Ralph Gens (1977-1980)
George Bingham (1970-1977)
Kenneth Klein (1965-1970)
Eugene White (1961-1965)
Eugene Starr (1954-1961)
Sol Schultz (1939-1954)
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