Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Power Drama

This winter there is a big project going on to renovate the power plant. Last year we had the old power plant and the new power plant, with working generators in both. Some Einstein back in the real world thought it would be a great idea to take all the generators out of the old power plant, and use just the two generators in the new power plant to light up the town.

The problem there is that generators have to be taken down for maintenance quite regularly, and we could be screwed if something blew up. Well, guess what? One of the new generators broke down in a big way over the weekend. It will take weeks to fix. We can barely power the town on one generator, if we conserve power. There is a smaller backup generator called the "Cat in a can" sitting outside the power plant. It's basically a generator installed in a milvan (freight container). It is notoriously unreliable, and shuts down in blowing snow.

Since we really don't have a power supply that is adequate for the town's needs, it's a pretty big deal. It is very cold and dark here this time of year, and it would be a real bummer to be powerless. The NSF station manager called an "all hands meeting" yesterday to lay out the facts. We have to have a contingency plan for what to do if the remaining big generator packs it in. Worst case scenario, we could possibly have to winterize the dorms we live in to conserve power, and all move in together in building 155 (the big, central building with the galley, offices, and dorm rooms). If we had to figure out ways to light up the town with no real power plant, there is even the possibility that we would treat it like a big medevac. In that case, we would prepare the now-winterized runway for an emergency flight. We would probably fly a bunch of people out months early, because there wouldn't be much point in being here with no power (not to mention the safety factor). It's very unlikely that it would come to that, and people aren't particularly freaked at this point. We do have to be ready for problems, though. Part of our emergency plan involves getting the word out that we have a power emergency underway. Everyone is directed to power down all possible equipment at home and at work, and huddle up at a predetermined location.

Well, the timing of the all hands meeting was fortuitous. Today, we had our power emergency. The Cat in a can quit working, and the power went out to part of town. They put all the load on the single generator, and it couldn't handle it all. The power to part of town went off again. I had to turn off all the lights and nearly all the equipment in my building, and move up to a coworker's office in another building. There has been quite a lot of drama going on, and I get to follow it all. Being the radio guy, I can monitor all the traffic as it happens. Just a minute ago I heard a technician on the radio saying he was out in a PistenBully, looking for generators out at Pegasus (the now-winterized runway facility). They're putting as much electrical load as possible on backup generators to take the heat off of the broken power plant. Crazy. There is nobody I know here who didn't think it was an insane idea to go down to two generators. One blows up-- major problems. Oh well, at least it has been interesting lately. I have my fingers crossed that it doesn't get any worse. I know we'll be fine no matter what, but the first thing they will have to do if our power production goes down any more is unplug the greenhouse. It's my favorite place-- the only bright and humid place to go down here. I go up every Wednesday and balance the pH and nutrients in all the hydroponic tanks. It would just kill me to let all those plants die. Fingers crossed!

Edit to add: I mean this post to be an anecdote about the buzz and the drama in McMurdo, and how it affects me personally. Someone closer to the action at the power plant told me that there are some minor factual errors in my account. Not surprising, since I don't work at the power plant, and don't have inside knowledge. I should have added a caveat from the start that my account is just the "word on the street" about how the drama unfolded.

1 comment:

Lynnsie said...

Hi Lee, I hope you are staying warm and dry even if you are in the dark without your lights or computer. Crossing fingers with you that the greenhouse stays okay. By now you have probably got a blog gone viral...with all us former winterovers passing your power drama post around el mundo. I got a link to your blog on my email from Ang know her...the weather observer. Tom and I got it on our joint email from Jordan and also Myrna. Should we start calling you Nick Gwin?? Or maybe Lee J? Just kidding.
Take care and remember to change your socks...change your attitude.
Ciao, Lynn