New HEA plant sparks capacity — Facility, upgrades mean energy independence

Photo by Hanna Heimbuch, Homer Tribune. HEA’s Nikiski Combined Cycle Plant began operating in January and was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting Thursday.

Photo by Hanna Heimbuch, Homer Tribune. HEA’s Nikiski Combined Cycle Plant began operating in January and was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting Thursday.

By Hannah Heimbuch

Homer Tribune

May Day welcomed more than early summer weather last week, it also marked the dedication of a new Homer Electric Association plant in Nikiski. About 100 of the energy co-op’s members and employees gathered at the Nikiski Combined Cycle Plant — which began operating the first of this year — to commemorate and tour the Nikiski plant and the Bernice Lake Combustion Turbine Plant.

“(It is) truly monumental in the history of Homer Electric Association,” said HEA Board of Directors President Dick Waisanen. The plant represents HEA’s transition into a new era in many ways, he said, both by its technology and the independence it represents.

As of Jan. 1, HEA became independent from wholesale supplier Chugach Electric Association.

“In the end, all of our lofty goals have been accomplished,” said Alaska Electric and Energy Cooperative President Bill Fry. “We are producing our own power, we are independent.”

That independence came with a boost in personnel, adding 34 full-time, long-term jobs to the HEA staff list. Some of those new positions are located at Power Dispatch in Nikiski, a state-of-the-art control center manned 24/7. Dispatch staff, posted in front of dozens of ever-changing information screens, match power generation to member load and maintain system frequency. This dispatch center connects HEA’s diverse power generation system, including the Bernice Lake plant. HEA purchased Bernice Lake from Chugach Electric in 2011. It uses three gas turbines to produce 80 megawatts of power.

The new plant at Nikiski also generates 80 megawatts of power, 18 of them produced by a new steam turbine. The steam turbine uses waste heat from the combustion turbine, converting the heat to usable energy that’s pumped back into the HEA grid without using any additional natural gas.

Plant Superintendent Larry Jorgensen describes a combustion turbine as a jet engine mounted on skids. The turbine capacity in Nikiski is equivalent to about 45,000 horsepower, he said. The heat recovery steam generator pulls the 950- to 1,000-degree heat coming from that turbine, and converts it to steam — 370,000 pounds per hour at maximum capacity.

“That’s the energy savings,” Jorgensen said. “We’ll remove that heat and convert it to power.”

Another strong feature of both the Nikiski plant and the Bernice Lake plant are their black start capacities. According to Jim Kingrey, plant superintendent, the Bernice plant can go from cold to pumping power onto the grid in just five minutes, and up to capacity in another two minutes.

“So that’s a really good safety feature to have,” Jorgensen said. “We’re not dependent on anyone else to get this place running again.”

The Bernice plant was built in 1963 but has gone through several major updates and overhauls in the decades since. One of those was installation of an arsenic removal skid in June last year. The station cleans wastewater before it is released back into the ground. The water actually comes out of the ground with a higher arsenic level than can legally be put back into the ground, Kingrey said, about 25 parts per million. Prior to the skid’s installation, wastewater had to be hauled to Anchorage for cleaning. This added up to about 5,000 gallons every two or three days, Kingrey said, and cost about $1 per gallon to haul and clean.

Another great aspect of the Bernice site, Kingrey said, is its output flexibility, which can be adjusted depending on demand.

“We can run this site basically from 2 megawatts all the way up to 80 megawatts,” Kingrey said.

Bernice Lake facilities can be remotely operated from the Nikiski Power Dispatch. Part of that system includes the new Bernice Lake Transmission Substation, which came online last April. That station and a corresponding line loop give HEA the ability to keep more members powered up, even if one controller goes down. Previously, the two were on one line.

Following the day of tours and celebration, approximately 400 members gathered in Soldotna for the HEA annual meeting. Directors in all three districts ran for re-election unopposed.

Kelly Bookey will stay in the District 1 seat, covering Kenai, Nikiski and parts of Soldotna. Waisanen will keep his District 2 seat, representing Soldotna, Sterling and the Kasilof area. For District 3, covering south Kasilof and the Kachemak Bay region, Don Seelinger, of Seldovia, will serve again.

For the coming year’s officers, the board of directors elected Waisanen as president, Bill Fry, of Homer, as vice president, David Thomas, of Kenai, as secretary/treasurer, and Jim Levine, of Homer, as deputy secretary.

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