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People look at engines.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Nathan Hoople, left, and Tim Briggs look over the new Caterpillar engines in the McMurdo power plant. A major project to provide power- and water-generating capabilities at both the water and power plants came to a close during the 2010-11 season.

Full power

McMurdo plant upgrade project comes to completion

Anyone who works in Antarctica knows you never bring just one of anything, whether it’s a battery or a scientific instrument. Success on the Ice is all about redundancy.

That’s the mantra of engineers and construction workers who completed a major seven-year project this past austral summer at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site to upgrade the power and water plant systems.

“It feels wonderful. It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a pretty intense project. It feels good to be finished, and it did go very well,” said Nathan Hoople, project engineer for the McMurdo Power and Water Plant Upgrade. “[The National Science Foundation External U.S. government site] was very happy with it.”

Exterior of building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Part of the exterior of the power plant.
Computers with engines in background.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Inside the control room.

The station’s old power plant had been completed in 1982 with equipment based on a design from the 1970s. Two of its half-dozen Caterpillar diesel generators had been out of commission, valuable only as a source of spare parts.

“It was well beyond its useable life. The engines were starting to break down,” Hoople said.

More importantly, all six of the 800-to-900-kiloWatt (kW) units were located in the same building. A catastrophic fire or other disaster would have knocked out power to the entire station, which houses more than a thousand people from about October to February. About 150 spend the winter months there.

Now the station has dual capability.

Three new, shiny yellow Caterpillar diesel engines sit in the remodeled generator room. Two more are located in the nearby water plant building. And then there are three reverse osmosis units for producing potable water — two in the water plant and one in the power plant.

“We have full redundancy,” Hoople said. “If the power plant were to burn down, the water plant could do everything we need it to do without any more backup.”

Four of the Caterpillar engines can produce up to 1500 kW. A smaller unit is rated at 1300 kW.

“With the wind system, we run a chunk of the time on one engine,” noted Hoople, referring to a three-turbine wind farm completed during the 2009-10 season by Antarctica New Zealand External Non-U.S. government site. Its research station, Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site, is located nearby McMurdo on Ross Island.

Each wind turbine can generate up to 330 kW on a site called Crater Hill between McMurdo Station and Scott Base. So far, turbine-generated power has saved the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site an estimated 78,000 gallons of fuel over the last year. 

Integrating the wind farm into the electrical system was a bit tricky — it wasn’t part of the original design — but a bigger challenge to the project was in the first year. The water plant building was found to be sinking, and the entire structure had to be jacked up.

Wind turbines overlook a town.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The three-turbine wind farm overlooks McMurdo Station.

“That delayed things right off the bat for the first year and a half,” Hoople said.

It was relatively smooth sailing after that, he added. The new power control system networks all five generators with the turbines. It’s smart enough to know when to switch on and off generators based on pre-set commands. If an engine shuts down for any reason, the computer activates another.

“Aside from regular maintenance, it will pretty much run without input from anybody until something breaks,” Hoople said.

One drawback to the new configuration is that the engines produce less waste heat, which the system used to warm McMurdo Station and save on electricity. However, the new system still captures waste heat off the engine coolant, as well as exhaust heat.

“There’s quite a bit of mechanical systems involved to do the waste heat capture; it’s probably as big a portion of this project [as the generators],” said Tim Briggs, construction superintendent for the project since 2007. “This is a very complicated building system for a really relatively small generator plant because of the heat recovery.

“The generators are the easy part,” he added.

Briggs remembers the old power plant well. He started working in the USAP the year after it was commissioned. Flashing light bulbs and analog dials have given way to computer screens. Engineers in the United States can access and troubleshoot problems thanks to a secure satellite link.

“So the people down here aren’t flying by themselves,” Briggs said. “It’s a pretty robust system.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs