Helms Pumped Storage Facility Team Safely, Successfully Completes Unit 1 Planned Outage

By Brian Bullock

Maintenance outages for power generation facilities are always a team effort, but for the folks at PG&E’s Helms Pumped Storage Facility, a critical hydro-electric facility in the Sierra Nevada, the latest outages proved to be international efforts, as well.

Helms, which marked its 30th anniversary last year, through the use of two reservoirs and three hydro-pump generators, can produce a total of 1,212 megawatts of electricity — enough to power the cities of Fresno and Oakland. And it can go from idle to full power in just eight minutes, which provides the power grid with the necessary capacity and reliability when electricity demand escalates like during the San Joaquin Valley’s hot, dry summers.

Its steady dependability has allowed PG&E to successfully integrate intermittent renewable sources, such as wind and solar, into the grid over the past several years.

However, its ability to continue production came into question four years ago when a similar generating station in Austria suffered a catastrophic failure to one of its massive rotors. PG&E immediately began inspections of the three 1 million pound rotors at Helms and discovered cracks that could have led to similar failures. The discovery led to a multi-national effort to design and build three new rotors.

The team at Helms had to take on the task of implementing short term repairs to the existing rotors and then working with its contractor, Alstom Power, a French-owned consortium, to design and fabricate the three massive replacement rotors, which were installed during recent maintenance outages. Components for the rotors were manufactured in Brazil, Canada and Sweden then assembled on-site.

“The teamwork, the innovation, working with extremely intelligent people from all over the world, it was amazing,” said James Aubuchon, Helms outage manager. “What I enjoyed most was the way we kept the team safely marching in the same direction. It was one of those jobs that you look back on and say ‘I was there. I was a part of that.”

Unit 2 was the first to get a newly designed and built rotor in 2014. The new Unit 3 rotor was installed and put into service last spring and Unit 1 received its new rotor just before Thanksgiving so reassembly could commence. A full battery of equipment, system, and unit testing in both pumping and generating modes was completed on Dec. 15 and the unit was released to service.

A key point of the success for Helms was the implementation of an outage management initiative to improve work performance. The Helms team has been a model of continuously improving outage management best practices over the past several years. Those best practices and others have been implemented throughout Power Generation.

“Projects of this scale require the cooperation, coordination, and support of one team with a variety of specialties,” said Mike Jones, interim leader, Power Generation.

“This team has been working for eight years to refurbish the Helms facility and virtually non-stop for the last four years to eliminate the risk of a rotor failure. The completion of this outage marks a significant milestone in the history of the facility,” added Jones. “The priorities of this project, in order, have been safety, quality, schedule and price. The commitment, sacrifice, and attention to detail by our team has produced the desired outcome — a plant that provides our customers with safe, clean, reliable, flexible and affordable power for many years to come.”

The dedication, innovation and teamwork demonstrated on the Helms project and outages earned the facility PG&E’s 2015 Margaret Mooney Award for Innovation.

“This was truly a ‘One PG&E’ type of project, with folks from every corner of this company safely working together to make it happen,” said Ed Halpin, senior vice president of Power Generation and chief nuclear officer. “I am proud of this team and commend them for their dedication and commitment to outage excellence.”

One more major outage is scheduled for 2017 as large intake and discharge gates on the Courtright Lake tunnels will be serviced, putting Helms in the position to safely generate power for many years to come.

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