NEW ORLEANS -- The Sewerage & Water Board could have saved millions of dollars if it had purchased a brand new turbine to power some of the city’s most important drainage pumps, rather than spending the last five years in a costly – and so far futile – effort to repair a 1920s-era piece of equipment that it purchased, used, more than 50 years ago.
That’s WWL-TV’s conclusion after reviewing a cost analysis by one of the Sewerage & Water Board’s consultants, along with dozens of contract and billing records from the ongoing refurbishment of nettlesome Turbine No. 4.
That turbine generates up to 20 megawatts of a special, old-fashioned kind of electricity – known as 25-cycle power – used to run the largest pumps at about a dozen of the city’s 24 pump stations.
“It has been out of service right now for five years and when it’s completed it will be their primary day-to-day turbine to produce electricity to run the pump stations,” said Bill Chrisman, the city’s former capital projects director and a former pump station construction manager. “It’s critical, absolutely critical.”
The board’s primary consulting firm, Black & Veatch, produced a cost analysis report in 2012 for the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory laying out the average capital costs of generating different kinds of power. It’s maximum estimate for purchasing and installing a gas-fired combustion turbine was $813 per kilowatt, which translates to $16.275 million for a 20 megawatt unit.
That’s more than the original $12.7 million contract to fix Turbine No. 4, but a steal compared with the $24 million the board had spent on the refurbishment project as of Aug. 6, according to an email from the board’s general superintendent, Joe Becker.
The board argues it must generate its own power because it is more reliable than electricity provided by the local utility, Entergy New Orleans. And any new turbines would produce standard, 60-cycle electricity that could directly run the S&WB’s newer pumps, but not the ones that provide more than half of the city’s drainage pumping capacity.
But the S&WB already has devices called static frequency converters that can change 60-cycle electricity into slower 25-cycle power, with 97-percent efficiency. And even if the board had purchased a new large converter to change up to 10 megawatts at once, it would have cost just $3.5 million, according to pricing from Swiss-based electrical engineering firm ABB Industrial Systems.
That still would have been less than $20 million for a new turbine and a frequency converter, compared with the $24 million spent to date fixing the old Turbine No. 4.
The Sewerage & Water Board received more than $2 billion from FEMA to repair its sewer, water and drainage systems after Hurricane Katrina. Most of that money had to be used to restore infrastructure to its pre-storm state, but it also got a $141 million hazard mitigation grant in 2012 to make improvements to its power plant.
When it came to the turbines, however, the board chose to refurbish rather than replace.
“The fact is, they could have replaced that turbine much cheaper and much quicker had they made that decision years ago,” Chrisman said.
It’s clear that the board was caught off-guard almost immediately by the difficulties fixing Turbine No. 4. At a January 2013 committee meeting, then-deputy superintendent Madeline Fong Goddard told board members, “Turbine 4 was opened up by the contractor and found to be sadly very damaged and not easily repairable.”
To which Councilwoman Stacy Head, then a member of the S&WB, interjected, “Never open anything up!” and laughed.
The lead contractor, Industrial and Mechanical Contractors, has issued more than 40 change orders, or extra bills, on two different contracts to fix Turbine No. 4 and its associated generator. The Sewerage & Water Board has rubber stamped them all with hardly any discussion.
Public records show that IMC hired a subcontractor, Alfred Conhagen Inc. of Louisiana, to weigh a large piece of equipment. It weighed almost 50 percent more than expected, so Conhagen weighed it again. IMC’s owner, Harold Heidingsfelder, said the S&WB insisted that it be weighed a third time, using additional scales, requiring a $7,000 addition to the contract.
And Conhagen’s president is Eric Heidingsfelder, Harold’s son.
In early 2014, the large piece of equipment they needed to weigh, called a stator, had to be shipped to New Mexico to be restacked and rewound, at an extra cost of more than $618,000. Another son of Harold Heidingsfelder who worked for IMC explained in a letter to the overall power plant project manager the stator had to be shipped to New Mexico because “the plant crane could not be used to lift the stator assembled.”
The $24 million cost of fixing Turbine No. 4 and its generator continues to grow as the S&WB, chastened by shocking drainage system failures, scrambles to get it back online this month. Officials already acknowledge that it’s still missing parts and won’t be able to generate at capacity. Crews tried to test the turbine this week, only to have electrical equipment connected to Turbine No. 4 catch fire and black smoke billow out of the powerhouse off Claiborne Avenue.