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Overhaul of overheating generator at Vero power plant to cost $1.3 million

VERO BEACH — Despite the fact that the City of Vero Beach is in the midst of negotiations to sell the electric utility, the City Council was told last week it must spend nearly $1.3 million to keep one of the power generators running.The power plant’s newest and most efficient unit, called Unit 5, has had a history of what the city is calling “thermal problems.” In plain terms, the unit has been overheating and melting components for the past few years and it needs a new, custom-built module installed to prevent another forced shutdown like the one which occurred last fall. Director of Power Resources Jim Stevens, who runs the plant and makes sure the city complies with all regulatory and safety guidelines, has been begging the city council to correct the problem for years. He has said that lines running to the unit have melted into “spaghetti” and urged the council to approve funds to undertake a major overhaul of the unit. Due to budget constraints and the fact that the city spent down a $14.5 million surplus in the 2008-2009 fiscal year by only passing along about 50 percent of increased power cost adjustments — a practice that was not sustainable — to quell growing hostility over severe electric rate hikes, some capital projects and needed maintenance fell by the wayside.Stevens explained that time is of the essence to get the rebuild done this year.”We’ve got a planned outage scheduled for February,” he said. “But it takes eight months to build the module.”Stevens explained to after the meeting that the supplier does not just have the spare parts to rebuild the unit sitting around in stock, that the new thermal module must be built, transported to Vero and switched out and tested during the multi-week outage when the city is permitted to have the unit offline. It will be the equivalent of a heart transplant for the unit, requiring intricate disconnections and reconnections of lines, components and monitoring equipment.The City of Vero Beach is part of the Florida Municipal Power Pool and must make its units available for peak load times and to kick in should power from the usual sources not be available, for example, due to congestion on Florida Power and Light transmission lines like Florida saw during the consecutive cold snaps in January. Stevens and Acting Utility Director John Lee also told council members that keeping the combined cycle unit 2 and 5 operational is required by the city’s 20-year, $2 billion contract with OUC. Failure to do so — if the city is called on to fire up the units and they are not available due to the city’s failure to maintain them, could result in hefty penalties, according to Stevens.The money to do the project was not approved last week by the city council, with only three members in attendance for the vote and Councilman Brian Heady dissenting, citing that he wanted to hear the results of the scheduled meeting with FP&L which happened last week. We now know that FP&L has at least not nixed the idea of a sale out of hand, and that they will be coming to Vero for a public meeting to discuss “options” in more detail. The date for that meeting has not been set.Heady questioned such a huge expenditure on infrastructure that may soon be sold, dismantled or mothballed in place should FP&L take over.”Can’t we buy power to meet our load charged to us, so we can opt out of Unit 5,” Councilman Brian Heady asked of staff. A flat-out “no” was the answer.The issue is expected to be raised again by staff for another vote at the upcoming city council meeting on June 15.

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