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Equipment replacement at Big Sandy: Big project, big improvement

November 8, 2023

ASHLAND, Ky., November 8, 2023 – Big Sandy Power Plant recently received a much-needed upgrade. The original switchgear, which had successfully served the plant for all of its 60 years, was recently replaced. This significant capital upgrade project is an improvement not only for reliability, but also safety. 

Steve Porter has worked as an engineer at Big Sandy for 34 years.

“We’re happy to announce that we’ve been able to meet our switchgear replacement goal this year,” said Steve Porter, plant engineer and project lead. “With enhanced safety features and the capability to perform maintenance much more efficiently, the new equipment is a game-changer for preventing unplanned, costly downtime of power generation.”

Switchgear is the foundation of the electrical system and top performance is critical for generating power. This equipment optimizes reliability by ensuring undisturbed interconnectivity and by separating faulty sections of the circuit in case of malfunction. If a circuit does malfunction, the switchgear counters quickly to prevent damage and complete shutdown of the circuit. The equipment functions like breakers tied to a home’s electrical system, but on a much larger voltage scale.

“To say the old switchgear served the plant well over the past six decades is an understatement,” Porter said. “Switchgear typically has a life-expectancy of around 15 to 20 years. The longevity of Big Sandy’s original switchgear is mostly thanks to the first-class engineers, who’ve kept the plant running and consistently out-performing expectations since 1962.”

But age had been catching up with the switchgear, and it was becoming very difficult and expensive to find replacement parts. Jarrod VanHoose, replacement project’s lead engineer, said maintenance issues could require a massive effort to repair if one of the 33 breakers failed and that the work posed inherent safety risks.   

“The new modernized switchgear is equipped with additional features that enhances employee safety and improves equipment reliability,” VanHoose explained.

Prior to the upgrade, maintenance work could require removing several breakers from service to repair just one, due to design. That means the plant would have to drop down its 295 MW generation capacity or stop generating power completely in some cases.

“Big Sandy was built to run,” VanHoose said. “We always try to avoid unplanned shut down situations and expect this upgrade to meet that goal since little to no maintenance will be required on the new breakers.”

When it was built in 1962, it was the first to incorporate a natural-draft cooling tower in the Western Hemisphere. In 2016, the unit was successfully converted from a coal-fired unit to a 295-megawatt, natural gas-burning unit.

“My hat’s off to all of those who have kept Big Sandy going all these years,” Porter said. “The new switchgear was a big project with big improvements that will enable us to continue delivering safe and reliable power to customers for many years to come.”



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