Two diesel engines quit while a third down for maintenance

'Murphy's Law' blacks out Iqaluit


A calm, sunny evening is a strange time for parts of the city of Iqaluit to lose power, as happened on Thursday, Aug. 2, around 8:15 p.m.

Usually power outages go hand-in-hand with blizzards and fierce winter winds. But no power lines were slapping together to create voltage surges that night.

Instead, it was a case of Murphy's Law playing out inside the Qulliq Energy Corp's power plant, explains Chris Cousins, supervisor of operations and maintenance.

First one of the enormous, school-bus-sized diesel engines failed. Another engine picked up the power load, then unexpectedly went down as well.

And a third engine was partially dismantled for routine maintenance. That meant half of the power plant's engines were out of commission.

If something can go wrong in the power plant, it will go wrong in the power plant. And once this happens, it's up to Cousins and his staff of repairmen to find the problem and fix it.

Within an hour of the outage, electricity flickered back on in Iqaluit's homes. But next week, mechanics still tinkered with the plant's enormous yellow Wartsila V12 engine, inspecting the fuel injectors while they wait for a new piston and rod to arrive.

The engine is one of the biggest in the plant, and is capable of producing about 3,500 kilowatts of power. Each piston weighs as much as a snowmobile.

Finding parts isn't easy. Such enormous engines are mostly used to power large cargo and cruise ships. So the parts distributor phoned shipping hubs such as Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as well as Singapore and Finland.

By Friday afternoon the needed parts had been located in Pennsylvania and were to be shipped to Ottawa that evening, and up to Iqaluit soon afterwards.

But flight delays meant the part didn't arrive until later this week, so the QEC continues to ask residents to conserve power until the repairs are complete, by avoiding use of major appliances such as dishwashers, and passing time by reading a book, rather than watching TV.

On Tuesday evening residents in parts of town experienced another short black-out, when demand for electricity exceeded what the plant could produce – 6,300 kilowatts, compared to the normal capacity of 15,000 kilowatts.

On Friday two engines are running to provide about 5,800 kilowatts of power. Even that burns a lot of fuel.

"Two thousand litres per hour," Cousins shouts over the din of the engines, as he points to a gauge on a fuel intake pipe.

On average, Iqaluit residents alone burn one million litres of diesel a month.

The cost of buying that fuel and shipping to Nunavut makes up a big slice of the Government of Nunavut's spending, so it's no wonder plans are being pursued to build a hydro-electric dam outside Iqaluit in future years.

Until then, the power corporation has made modest efforts to improve efficiency, by taking the heat produced from running its diesel engines, capturing it in pipes and using it to heat the nearby Baffin Regional Hospital.

A lot has changed since Cousins worked as the plant operator in Frobisher Bay 13 years ago.

The community's population was far smaller then, and apparently, consisted of proportionally far more fervent hockey fans.

Cousins recalls how power usage was at its steadiest one time of year: the NHL play-offs.

"You could tell when the play-offs were over. The load lowered a little bit," he says. "I thought that was interesting."

At that time, the operator's room was full of knobs to be turned and clipboards to be filled out with readings.

Now, two computers sit in the operator's room and do much of this work automatically. Only one is needed, but knowing how Murphy's Law reigns in the power plant, the staff keep an extra one in place, just in case.

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