The Sewerage & Water Board could have saved millions of dollars if it had purchased a new turbine to power some of the city’s most important drainage pumps instead of spending the past five years in a costly — and so far futile — effort to repair a 1920s-era piece of equipment that it purchased, used, more than 50 years ago.
That’s WWL-TV’s conclusion after reviewing a cost analysis by one of the board’s consultants, along with dozens of contract and billing records from the ongoing refurbishment of troubled Turbine No. 4.
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That turbine generates up to 20 megawatts of a special, old-fashioned kind of electricity — known as 25-cycle power — used to run the largest pumps at about a dozen of the city’s 24 pump stations. It’s the most powerful of the five turbines the S&WB uses.
“It has been out of service right now for five years, and when it’s completed, it will be their primary day-to-day turbine to produce electricity to run the pump stations,” said Bill Chrisman, the city’s former capital projects director and a former pump station construction manager. “It’s critical, absolutely critical.”
The board’s consultant, Black & Veatch, produced a cost-analysis report in 2012 for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory laying out the average capital costs of generating different kinds of power. Its maximum estimate for purchasing and installing a gas-fired combustion turbine was $813 per kilowatt, which translates to $16.3 million for a 20-megawatt unit.
That’s a good bit more than the original $12.7 million contract to fix Turbine No. 4, but a steal compared with the $24 million the board had spent on the refurbishment project as of last month.
The board has argued that generating its own power is more reliable than depending on electricity from Entergy New Orleans. Also, the board has noted that new turbines would produce standard, 60-cycle electricity that could directly run the S&WB’s newer pumps, but not the older ones that provide more than half of the city’s drainage pumping capacity.
On the other hand, the S&WB already has devices, called static frequency converters, that can change 60-cycle electricity into slower 25-cycle power. A new large converter capable of changing up to 10 megawatts at once would have cost the board just $3.5 million, according to the Swiss-based electrical engineering firm ABB Industrial Systems.
That still would have been less than $20 million combined for a new turbine and a frequency converter, compared with the $24 million spent to date fixing the old Turbine No. 4.
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The Sewerage & Water Board received more than $2 billion from FEMA to repair its sewer, water and drainage systems after Hurricane Katrina. Most of that money had to be used to restore the infrastructure to its pre-storm state, but it also got a $141 million hazard mitigation grant in 2012 to make improvements to its power plant.
When it came to the turbines, however, the board chose to refurbish rather than replace.
“The fact is, they could have replaced that turbine much cheaper and much quicker had they made that decision years ago,” Chrisman said.
It’s clear that the board was caught off-guard almost immediately by the difficulties of fixing Turbine No. 4. At a January 2013 committee meeting, then-Deputy Superintendent Madeline Fong Goddard told board members, “Turbine 4 was opened up by the contractor and found to be sadly very damaged and not easily repairable.”
To which Councilwoman Stacy Head, then a member of the board, interjected, “Never open anything up!” and laughed.
The lead contractor, Industrial and Mechanical Contractors, has issued more than 40 change orders, or extra bills, on two different contracts to fix Turbine No. 4 and its associated generator. The S&WB has rubber-stamped them all with little discussion.
The $24 million cost of fixing Turbine No. 4 and its generator continues to grow as the S&WB, chastened by shocking drainage system failures, scrambles to get it back online. But even then, officials acknowledge that it’s still missing parts and won’t be able to generate at full capacity.
Crews tried to test the turbine Wednesday, only to have electrical equipment connected to Turbine No. 4 catch fire and send black smoke billowing out of the powerhouse off South Claiborne Avenue.
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