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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.

Bad generator cost millions in power sales, city learns belatedly

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle City Council was kept in the dark for months about a broken generator at the city’s largest hydroelectric dam that cost the city up to $7 million in lost power sales.

The busted generator at Boundary Dam also will cost about $19 million to repair. But Seattle City Light officials said those expenses were anticipated in long-term planning. By reshuffling maintenance projects, the repairs could be funded without impacting ratepayers, according to City Light.

“The real impact is lost revenue not coming back,” said council staff analyst Tony Kilduff.

City Light sells surplus power, especially during spring months when melting snow causes rivers to run high, producing more electricity than the city-owned utility needs.

The failure of generator 53 at the Boundary Dam in remote Pend Oreille County occurred April 27, at a time when a heat wave hit the western United States, electricity prices were high, and City Light missed out on $6 million to $7 million in power sales.

City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said those lost revenues won’t impact rates, either. He said those losses could be offset by not funding other projects or skimping elsewhere.

But Mike O’Brien, chair of the council’s City Light oversight committee, said that’s still a real impact.

“Obviously, it means other things may get shifted or delayed,” O’Brien said. “It’s not free money.”

At an oversight meeting Tuesday, O’Brien said he didn’t learn about the generator problem until last month. “It’s important that information gets out as soon as reasonably possible” about such an event, he told City Light executives.

Superintendent Jorge Carrasco said he was to blame.

Carrasco said the problem struck him as an operational issue the council didn’t need to know about immediately. When city budget staffers made clear the impact of the lost revenue, Carrasco said, he realized the need to alert the council.

“Going forward I will need to make sure it doesn’t happen” again, Carrasco told O’Brien and other panel members.

Mayor Mike McGinn learned of the problem about the same time as the council, Carrasco said.

The Boundary Dam supplies about 26 percent of City Light’s electricity. It has six generators in all.

Generator 53 was going full-bore on the morning of April 27 when safety systems triggered a shutdown. City Light officials said the generator emitted some smoke, and the eight employees on hand evacuated. No one was injured.

Officials said they don’t know whether the generator caught fire. They aren’t sure what caused the problem, either, and likely won’t know until they get in and essentially overhaul the generator, which has the capacity to supply electricity to 160,000 homes.

Another generator, number 55, already was shut down for repairs at the time and continues to be down. That means Boundary Dam’s capacity is now decreased by roughly one-third.

But that’s not a problem at this time of year, said City Light’s Thomsen. Until spring, when river flows increase, the dam is as productive as it can be with four working generators.

City Light officials vowed to have both disabled generators working next spring when all six will be needed to take advantage of melting snow.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com


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