Black Start – Prologue
The study hall in Du Bois library was quiet in the din of autumn that evening in November, 1965. Such was life at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA. Winter was rumored to be just around the next blustery bend. Mid-term exams wouldn’t let me think about the Thanksgiving break coming later that month.
I should have been studying at this hour of 5:30 pm. As I recall, a pretty blonde co-ed (unnamed here) captured my eyes and imagination. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have hers. So there I was day dreaming (not about thermodynamics, as I should have been), when all of a sudden the lights flickered in the expansive study hall with long tables and uncomfortable wooden chairs. A few moments later, the lights flickered again and went out to stay. There was no thunder and no lightening. What just happened? A buzz came over the room.
A few seconds later, I heard a deep voice: “This is God speaking.” Everyone around me chuckled. Some wise guy, no doubt. “Due to lack of interest, today has been cancelled.” The laughs were louder now. It wasn’t quite dark outside but everyone in the hall began loading books into their backpacks and making their way to the exits where emergency lights were dimly lit. Something definitely had happened. It wasn’t but two years after another November event when President Kennedy had been assassinated, so I’m sure some students, like I, had considered something ominous had happened. Or was it a Soviet nuclear attack in retribution to Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba in October 1962?
That was my first experience with blackout conditions. It wouldn’t be the last. November 9, 1965 was the day that came to be known as The Great Northeast Blackout. States along the eastern seaboard went dark and stayed that way for a dozen hours. New York State was perhaps the darkest, as the power system collapsed from Niagara Falls near Buffalo to New York City. Long Island was blacked out as well.
I learned many years later that a lone gas turbine generating plant in the town of Southampton, NY, on the eastern tip of Long Island, was the only one in the region with “black start” capability. That is, this power plant manufactured by General Electric (GE), could start on battery power using a diesel cranking engine. It could fire, warm-up and accelerate to full speed on #2 distillate fuel oil from a nearby storage tank. It took approximately eight minutes after an emergency start signal was initiated. The good news was, the turbine performed as expected. This little GE 12-megawatt generator was credited with restoring power to Long Island and eventually New York City.
Little did I realize that day in fall of 1965 that a career in gas turbine field service engineering would be in my future. I was hired with General Electric the following year. After eighteen months in technical marketing training, I opted to change my career direction. I was hired in 1968 by their international service organization called General Electric Technical Services Company, better known by everyone in the business simply as GETSCO (pronounced Jets-co).
After a brief period in training on the new Field Engineering Program (FEP), I was sent to Chicago to assist in the installation of three 4-unit GE gas turbine power blocks. These twelve package power plants could start and operate on either natural gas or liquid fuel. Commonwealth Edison Company, at their Crawford Station, needed peaking power in case that region ever experienced a power emergency. Also, one of the Dresden nuclear plants was seriously behind schedule, so these units were immediately put into service for base load operation. At the time, they ran only on liquid fuel, as the gas fuel system was not commissioned until years later.
A few months later, I was called back to Schenectady, NY to enter the Gas Turbine Start-up Program. The program lasted about one year. We were trained on current and new control systems. The current controls on MS5001LA gas turbines utilized the Young & Franklin fuel regulator. The first electronic system, first used on MS5001N gas turbines, was GE’s Speedtronic™ Mark I. We were trained to provide start-up support on both systems.
After the training period, in the May 1969, an emergency call came in from a site in Escuintla, Guatemala. No longer considered a trainee, I was dispatched to the capitol city and later driven down toward the Pacific side of the country. Along with another engineer, Willie Brandt (no relation to the former leader of Germany) and I were sent to a flooded region of the country to “bailout” two GE gas turbine generators. We were there for about a month. Torrential rains came every day and we had to cross over a river (sometimes by cable and a stirrup chair), to get to the power plants.
This GE year-long start-up program gave me extensive controls and start-up experience on several assignments within the USA and overseas. Over my career, I’ve worked in more than 20 countries for GE and a few countries more since then. It was the beginning of a 40+ year career in gas turbine field engineering.
I dedicate this blog endeavor to all the friends and associates I have had in the gas turbine business and in particular, the field engineers and those associated with the Field Engineering Program (FEP). We call ourselves “Turbine Cowboys.” Visit www.turbinecowboy.com to learn more about the guys and gals who have become field engineers in the power generation business.
Please read on and comment.
- David Lucier