Basin Electric employees battle below zero to get unit on grid

two linemen fist bumping in a substation
Jason Richter and Brenden Leier were two members of the TSM team that worked many hours in subzero temperatures to get Leland Olds Station Unit 2 back onto the grid prior to the energy emergency alert the morning of Feb. 15.

North Dakotans are a hardy bunch. They have to be. The weather swings in the state are legendary. It’s not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a matter of days. In mid-February, that season was decidedly winter. The state sported temperatures in the minus-30-degree Fahrenheit range, crowning a cold snap that blanketed almost the entire middle part of the country.

In typical North Dakota fashion, life moved on despite the deep freeze. People continued to work, however, some critical equipment in the Leland Olds Station switchyard decided it had enough of the cold. A breaker malfunctioned, taking the power plant’s second unit offline at a time when demand for electricity was climbing to critical levels in the region.

Employees from Basin Electric’s Transmission System Maintenance (TSM) division stepped up for what became a marathon battle in the cold. They prevailed, reconnecting the unit to the grid before the energy emergency began.

two line workers working on equipment in a substation
TiAnna Stevens and Jason Richter switching the bus in and out to work on equipment. Clearances from WAPA are necessary to work on substation equipment.

Broken breakers

It was 2 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. While much of the world was cozy and warm in bed, Karl Edler, Basin Electric substation electrician, and TiAnna Stevens, Basin Electric system protection technician, were en route to the Leland Olds Station switchyard near Stanton, North Dakota, to investigate an alarm on a breaker that took Unit 2 offline. A breaker is designed to open and interrupt the flow of electricity when system protection equipment detects a fault.

Leland Olds Unit 2 has two breakers in the 345-kilovolt substation that keep the generator connected to the grid when closed. One of the breakers was out of service due to previous issues with one of its isolating disconnect switches. Stevens and Edler found the second breaker had tripped, and the trip circuit resistors had burned up. The resistors would need to be replaced before the breaker could be put back into service. The Leland Olds switchyard breakers’ age and design are known issues and are scheduled to be replaced in 2024 as part of Basin Electric’s Aging Infrastructure Initiative.

The team isolated the breaker and reported back to the supervisor.

“We needed more hands. It was a bigger problem than we anticipated,” Stevens says.

Jason Richter, Basin Electric lead substation electrician, joined the callout around 5:30 a.m. He and Stevens worked together with Edler to make a plan: fix the breaker that had tripped that morning, and work on the other breaker’s disconnect switch while they were on site. The plan, however, was foiled by cold weather and aging equipment.

The job required a man lift from the Beulah (North Dakota) TSM shop about 30 miles away. When Richter went to get the equipment, he found neither the man lift nor the truck to haul it would start in the cold. Brenden Leier, substation electrician apprentice, worked on the equipment so Richter could get back to the switchyard. Leier got both running and arrived at the switchyard with the equipment, and food, late that afternoon.

Stevens says they welcomed the food.

“You’re not thinking about food when you get a callout at 2 a.m.,” she says.

Edler and Leier worked on repairing the burned resistors. Stevens and Richter worked on switching and placing clearances. Multiple times throughout the day, the team thought they had the issue resolved, so they turned down offers of a relief crew. “It got to the point we thought we were almost done, but then something else happened,” Stevens says.

They encountered trouble with several switches, which connect or disconnect electrical equipment to or from power lines. Broken linkages had to be fixed. Arms that weren’t making good contact had to be adjusted. Motors that operate the switches didn’t work, so switches had to be hand operated. Components being stubborn in the cold needed lubrication.

“One thing after another didn’t operate, didn’t work,” Richter says. “Several switches wouldn’t close. We had to hand-crank most closed. And then we couldn’t get that breaker closed. We tried and tried and tried.”

Richter says the crew was ready for relief around 11:30 p.m. when they made one last attempt to close the breaker. Finally the team’s persistence and flexibility paid off, and they were able to close one of the breakers.

Leland Olds Unit 2 was back putting 440 megawatts onto the grid prior to the Southwest Power Pool issuing the Energy Emergency Alert Level 1 the morning of Feb. 15.

two lineworkers working on equipment in a substation
 Jason Richter and Karl Edler working on a MOD (motor operating device). The crew worked on multiple MODs and switches on Feb. 14.

One step at a time

“It was definitely cold. We had coveralls on and overboots to help keep our steel toes from getting cold. We had hand warmers. We did what we needed to do. I didn’t think much about it because my mind was so busy,” Stevens says. By the time she returned home, she had been gone for nearly 24 hours.

Leier was out for about 12 hours and says it was a blur. “When I arrived, the plan was already made and there was a list of things to get done. We just started knocking off one thing at a time. By the end of the day, we had just enough fuel in the man lift to get it loaded back onto the trailer,” he says.

“The day went fast. It was constant. There was no down time. Just in the substation, I walked 17,000 steps that day. It was crazy,” Richter says. “The positive I can pull out of it, there was no wind. Minus 37 to someone else, they’d say, ‘Are you crazy?’ Kind of, I guess. You have to live here to know that.”

Richter has put in a lot of long days in the past, but he says Feb. 14 was his longest in the field. “It’s about integrity. The job had to get done,” he says. “Take one step at a time and work through it. If I would’ve looked at the broad picture of what was going on as the day went on, it would’ve been overwhelming.”

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