MORGAN CITY — Utilities Director Bill Cefalu updated local businessmen on the current condition of the Morgan City power grid as well as future plans to improve and upgrade the system at a St. Mary Industrial Group meeting Monday.
He said the city has a system that is admittedly aged, but reliable and capable of providing city needs in the wake of the June 26 transformer fire at the Joseph J. Cefalu Sr. Municipal Steam Plant. The city is awaiting a new electric unit that will be built by the Louisiana Energy and Power Authority in 2015.
Cefalu said LEPA was an organization that was created about 35 years ago and approved by the Legislature to provide 19 cities public power that did not build transmission. This allowed the 12 participating cities to pool assets and become a power authority. There are 19 member cities, but only 12 actually participate in the co-op.
The LEPA control center is in Lafayette and they sample the grid every 20 or 30 minutes looking for excess power that may be available at a cheap rate because companies do not like to turn down their turbines. Instead of doing that, companies make excess power available on the grid and LEPA can pick that power up.
Cefalu said it may be four hours or four days of power, but the plant generally did not generate here because the facility was more expensive to operate than what the city could buy on the grid.
“We have a 50 megawatt (transformer) unit running now, which is more than enough to supply the city,” he said. “I like to keep a unit running, so we keep Unit 4 (steam generator) running. We had the transformer handling as high as 31 megawatts one day when we had trouble with the units, and it handled it OK. It can handle as much as 35 megawatts easy and I am comfortable with that.”
After the fire burned the existing 100-megawatt transformer the city was using, the city had to resort to operating solely on steam units 3 and 4 to provide the city electricity until a reserve 50-megawatt transformer could be brought on line.
Cefalu said bugs have been worked out of both the steam units and reserve transformer after the city went without power for about 23 hours in June.
“The relay issues on the transformer have been adjusted,” he said. “The system is aged, but the reason we are trying to hang on to what we have and not spend taxpayer dollars is we have another unit coming online in three years. LEPA is going to build a 67-megawatt unit here in Morgan City and it will be owned by 12 different cities. We will have 10 to 15 megawatts of it to pay on that capital cost and that will give stability to this area.
“The reason we have problems during high temperature months is we are at the end of the LEPA system lines so we need to have something here to keep that voltage up.”
As the city awaits the new LEPA power generating system, Cefalu said the city has ample power on hand between the co-op power entering through the replacement transformer and units 3 and 4 at the steam plant.
The co-op also gives the city the option to buy the cheapest possible power for the city, keeping energy costs down for residents. This is generally a first option by LEPA, which runs the Morgan City plant.
“Their responsibility is to go out, find the cheapest energy they can find, and get that energy to our customers,” Cefalu said. “Whenever the plant is not run, it is because LEPA decided it is in the best interest of all the customers to not generate power because they can find energy cheaper on the grid.”
Unit 4 is kept on line to make up the difference, especially during peak summer months, in case there is no excess power available on the grid.
He said Morgan City is guaranteed some power on the grid because it holds an interest in the Cleco coal-fired plant in Alexandria. This guarantees the city 20 megawatts of power on a regular basis.
The power coming into the city is transmitted by the current replacement transformer.
“LEPA runs our plant and operates it, and their responsibility is to bring the energy to our gate, which is now to a transformer that didn’t work,” he said joking.
In the meantime, Cefalu said Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte allocated his department more money to improve power lines around the city by completing a loop around the city. That would keep sections of the city from losing power if future problems occur.
He said currently, power to the city is transmitted to two half loops, which allow parts of the city to lose power if there is a problem. But the two loops will be connected into one loop with the addition of breakers which should keep the city with power in all but the worst of emergencies.
Cefalu said the current system also affords Morgan City residents cheaper rates than other companies such as Cleco or Entergy, and people would have to decide via their vote if they want to spend more money to improve the system.
“We do have good rates compared to Cleco and Entergy, but there are pros and cons to that,” he said. “We have to ask people what they want to spend, where the private companies can go to Utilities Commission to raise rates to upgrade machinery and they are allowed to make a 12 percent profit by law. Looking to the future, the city needs to look to the people to see if they want more dependability. We were down 23 hours, but hurricanes can put us out 10 days.
“It depends on how much you want to pay for the inconvenience of a few hours. Some people would rather save that dollar all year long and be inconvenienced a few hours. It is a balancing act I will leave to the politicians.”