New York’s Flagship Power Plant Looks to the Future

Inside the epic $1.1 billion, 15-year upgrade of the New York State Power Authority's historic hydropower facility.

NYPA Senior Program Director Andrea Luongo
NYPA Senior Program Director Andrea Luongo. Image courtesy of New York Power Authority

The Niagara Power Project is New York State’s biggest electricity producer, providing more than 2.6 million kilowatts of clean energy per year. All that energy is generated by two facilities—the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and the Lewiston Pump Generating Plant—with a combined 25 turbines, spun by 748,000 gallons of water per second. 

In 2017, both facilities were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hydro plant broke ground in 1957, took $800 million to build and started producing power in 1961, when it became the largest hydropower facility in the Western world. Earlier this year, the New York Power Authority—its owner and operator—announced a $1.1 billion investment to modernize and digitize the facility. Andrea Luongo, senior program director at NYPA, shared details about the upgrades, which could set an example for similar plants across the country.

The Next Generation Niagara program is anticipated to take 15 years to complete, divided into four major phases. When is the project expected to begin and how does the timeline look like?

Luongo: The program has started with the inspection of the Robert Moses plant’s penstocks. These are 13,450-foot-long steel tubes that carry water to the generators. Construction of a platform to facilitate this work is already underway and its delivery to the site is scheduled for 2021.

The second phase (involves) refurbishing the 630-ton crane that enables mechanical work at the plant. The contract for the crane work is scheduled to be awarded in 2020 and the work completed in 2022. The third step consists of upgrading and digitizing the control systems, including building a new back-up control room. This work began in mid-August and will continue through 2023.

The final step of the program consists of replacing the mechanical parts of the generators, including wicket gates and shafts, which have reached the end of their operating life. Contract awards for replacement parts are scheduled to be issued next year, while on-site construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 and continue through 2034.

Which parts of the renovation plan do you consider most challenging?

Luongo: Coordinating the upgrades to the control systems will pose the most challenges because the control room needs to function as usual while the upgrades are taking place.

Which new technologies will be incorporated into the Niagara Power Plant and how will these affect the project’s efficiency, reliability and longevity?

Luongo: The new digital control system will replace many disparate systems with one integrated system that will provide operational efficiencies and align with NYPA’s goal to become the first fully digital utility.

How will the upgraded plant benefit the operators?

Luongo: The controls project alone will improve the ease and efficiency of operating the plant by incorporating better ergonomics and using digital displays to reduce eye strain. In addition, improving alarm logic and management will help operators better identify items that need their attention and shorten response times. The control work will also help operators anticipate problems, reducing the need for emergency repairs.

What impact will the project have on the share of energy generated by renewable energy sources in western New York?

Luongo: The upgraded controls systems, specifically the exciter and governor, will react faster, allowing for better integration of intermittent, renewable energy sources and providing better overall support of the state’s electric system.

What are the projections for demand faced by the power plant’s service area over the next 15 years or so?

Luongo: According to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) Power Trends 2019, Niagara and other hydroelectric plants currently account for 21 percent of the state’s power production. NYPA will continue to be at the forefront of providing renewable power to the grid as generators retire to meet Clean Energy Standard goals. According to the NYISO Goldbook, the statewide energy demand is expected to stay relatively flat in the next 10 years and then pick up after 2029 by about 0.5 percent.

Will commercial customers be affected in any way? Are energy prices expected to change as a result of the revamp project?

Luongo: Based on our projections, the design of Next Generation Niagara is the most cost-effective to ensure the continuation of NYPA’s clean, low-cost power and the rates for NYPA’s hydroelectric power are expected to remain below the forecasted market prices.

Are other agencies across the country making similar investments in their hydropower projects these days? Is there a national trend emerging?

Luongo: NYPA is making these comprehensive investments in its flagship hydropower plant to continue to support the aggressive carbon reduction goals under Governor Cuomo’s nation-leading Green New Deal. New York continues to lead by putting forth and implementing a bold plan to combat climate change that other entities can follow.