Fiberoptic Networking Powers Up Plant

Power Company Uses Fiberoptic Cabling and Remote Control I/O Cards in Field Devices and Expects to Eliminate 54,000 ft. of Hardwiring

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Aside from the Rocky Mountains, the North American West used to be mostly uncrowded. In fact, Wyoming once competed with Alaska for least populous U.S. state. Well, times and demographics have changed. While most of the westward population shift in recent years has gone to Arizona and Nevada, more than a few folks also have migrated to states like Montana and Wyoming.

As usual, this influx of people and families has meant more houses and steadily growing communities requiring basic necessities such as water, natural gas, public services and especially electricity.

As a result, two Black Hills subsidiaries, Black Hills Power and Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power, spent the past couple of years adding two new power plants to two existing plants at their 320-acre energy complex in Gillette Wyo. Black Hills Power (BHP) has 69,000 electricity customers in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and Cheyenne Light has 39,800 electricity customers and 33,300 natural gas customers in Wyoming. Black Hills also owns and operates a coal-mining division, Wyodak Resources Development, which fuels the power plants and is the oldest continuously operated, open-pit coal mining operation in the U.S. BHP and Cheyenne Light are divisions of parent Black Hills, which has a total generating capacity of 1,000 MW.

Progressive Improvement

On the surface, the three Wygen plants appear to be copies of the utility’s initial Neil Simpson II facility. However, because they were designed and built in succession, the developers naturally sought to make each one more efficient to operate, while also decreasing the environmental footprint of each, and minimizing equipment and construction cost increases due to economic changes over the 15 years these plants were built.

To help it achieve the same power-generating capacity as the other plants at less cost, BHP asked its engineers and contractors to come up with innovative ideas for the new Wygen III 110-MW, coal-fired power plant (Figure 1) now under construction at the complex. One of the most significant changes is Wygen III’s far greater use of fiberoptic lines for its network communications. This not only saves on materials, but also will generate other long-term savings for the utility.


110-MW Wygen III
The 110-MW Wygen III power plant arises on the prairie at Black Hills Power’s 320-acre energy complex in Gillette, Wyo. 

BHP broke ground for Wygen III a year ago, and the plant is now 60% finished. The plant is scheduled to begin serving customers in June 2010.

“Comparing Wygen III to the other plants is like comparing today’s Cadillac to one from 1994,” says Shawn Lesmeister, Wygen III’s assistant project director. “It has a lot of technical upgrades to its controls, combustion, emissions and environmental technologies, including  a new distributed control system.”

BHP’s other three plants have DCSs from ABB; however, Wygen III is the first place ABB will integrate all ABB electrical equipment and controls, including motor control centers (MCCs), secondary unit substations (SUSs) and medium-voltage switchgear, at one of the plants.

Fiberoptics is orders of magnitude less costly and labor-intensive to install and will be far less expensive to maintain and troubleshoot.

“This will help all the controls play better together, make operations easier and allow us to secure data that took more work to get before,” adds Lesmeister. “For example, common technology will make it much simpler for our protective relays, current meters, limits switches and other protective devices to pass data and trips through to the control system.” However, 15-20 other unit protection relays, turbine relays and other protective devices will still remain hardwired from their original devices to the plant’s unit trip coils.

ABB’s Power Systems division reports it’s also been working with mechanical engineering contractor Black & Veatch and civil engineering contractor Kuljian on the new plant. Other ABB iICE solutions for Wygen III include protection systems, isolated and non-segregated phase buses, generator circuit breaker, medium-voltage switchgear and MCCs, low-voltage switchgear and transformers, low-voltage MCCs, instrumentation and an ac/dc system.

First, Play Tag

To implement Wygen III’s fiberoptic network, BHP first identified about 4,000 I/O tags in its DCS tag database, including 3,200 coming from hundreds of remote relays, meters and switches. Signals and information from these tags travel via hardwire to 10-15 remote I/O (RIO) cabinets and then on to the ABB 800xA DCS. Traditionally, cabinet-to-DCS communications at the Wygen plants also were hardwired, which meant thousands more wires going back to centralized controls. This is where the project employs fiberoptics. “These lines carry the plant’s heartbeat, so we need to monitor it just like an electrocardiogram,” says Lesmeister. “However, using fiberoptics instead of hardwiring is orders of magnitude less costly and labor-intensive to install and also will be far less expensive to maintain and troubleshoot. Overall economics mean it’s more important than ever for us to ensure we’re operating as cost-efficiently as possible.”

Kevin deRee, project manager at ABB Power Systems, reports that along with using fiberoptics, BHP integrated many of its I/O cards directly into Wygen III’s electrical devices or located them in the field (Figure 2). This is expected to eliminate more than 54,000 ft. of hardwired control cable that BHP would have had to use if it hadn’t employed fiberoptics. This reduced tray, conduit and labor costs, and it saved installation time. “Using fiberoptics and moving DCS I/O points to the field is pretty innovative for the power industry,” says deRee. “However, BHP was previously facing some limits with relying primarily on hardwiring and sought another solution.”

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