When the Upper Bonnington Generating Station was constructed over a century ago, it was built to last.
The station, which is approximately 17 kilometres downstream from Nelson on the Kootenay River, is essentially the same now as when it was first built in 1907.
Two power units were part of the original structure, two more added in 1916 and another pair in 1939. They’ve been operating without fail ever since. But now FortisBC, which runs the station, is upgrading the units as part of a $31-million, four-year project to bring them in line with modern safety and environmental standards.
Nicole Bogdanovic, FortisBC’s corporate communications advisor, said the company considered replacing the units entirely but instead opted to refurbish them. Built-in obsolescence, after all, wasn’t much of a concept in the early 20th century.
“What’s interesting about this plant, it was pretty pioneering for its time,” said Bogdanovic. “It has a very interesting configuration that’s very rare to be seen anywhere else, and I think it really does speaks to the ingenuity of those early engineers who were right from the Kootenays.”
The Nelson Star was invited to tour the station Thursday to see the old units in person.
Upper Bonnington has six power units, two of which were added in 1939 and have already been refurbished. Two thousand five hundred cubic feet of water per second runs through the station, which contributes 65 of the total 225 megawatts of power generated by FortisBC’s four hydro-electric plants on Kootenay River.
The station itself is a fascinating mix of old and new technologies. Iron control panels, some of which are taped off for asbestos, still operate alongside modern digital displays.
The setup has worked so well for so long that the station was this year inducted into the Hydro Hall of Fame — yes, it’s real — which is a program that recognizes hydro achievement throughout the world.
One of the four units has already been completed, and the remaining three will take a year apiece to finish.
“The big project is a life extension of the four units in the old plant,” said Steve Hope, regional manager of generation. “What that entails is dismantling the unit completely, a full assessment of the unit, a new generator rewind, a pole refurbishment on the rotor. And then we either replace or reuse or refurbish the original equipment and put it back in. We also bring [in] today’s technology environmentally with our electrical system.”
FortisBC has 15 total power units, 11 of which were upgraded between 1998 and 2011. Bogdanovic said the Upper Bonnington units are being worked on last because the station only runs four months of the year during freshet.
“But they are the ones we have a soft spot for because they are over 100 years old and are still running with the original components,” she said.
At the moment, the station mostly runs itself by itself. Prior to the upgrades, the original power units only required three tradespeople to operate about two hours a day. When the work is completed, operation will be done remotely from a centralized control centre.
The company expects the work to extend the life of the power units by at least 20 years.
“I think it’s very important for the public to care about this,” said Hope. “It’s power to their house. It’s clean, renewable energy that we’re providing to our customers.”