"We consider this plant as a whole, that is, the entire development at Pointe du Bois, transmission line, terminal station and substations, as first-class in design and construction and highly efficient in operation."
— L. A. Herdt and W. Kennedy, Jr.,
consulting engineers, December 1911
POINTE DU BOIS — It was a big meeting for Winnipeg city council, back on May 29, 1906.
A watershed moment, so to speak.
Council determined that this wide bend and rapids in the Winnipeg River was the best site for the first publicly-owned dam to produce hydroelectric power for a growing city. The privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Railway Company had that same year opened its own generating station downstream on the Winnipeg River at Pinawa to produce power for its streetcars, ending the era when they were pulled by horses.
Pinawa had extra power, but the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company wanted too much money for it.
Mayor Thomas Sharpe and his city councillors believed they could do better, so they crafted a bylaw to develop Pointe du Bois and ship its power to Winnipeg 150 kilometres away.
That bylaw, and a second one put together by councillors that same day to allow streetcars to operate on Sunday, would be put to voters in a referendum.
Both passed, and the City of Winnipeg took a giant leap forward into the electrical age when Pointe du Bois started producing power in 1911. It was the first real powerhouse to supply electricity to city residents, who, at the time, cooked on wood stoves and read in the evening by oil lamp or candlelight.
One hundred and two years later, flicking on a light or boiling water for tea is taken for granted.
The problem is, it is 102 years later.
Like a lot of infrastructure in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba, Pointe du Bois is falling apart. What was an engineering feat at the time — taming the Winnipeg River and switching the city to cheap and convenient electricity — is now a museum to worn-out technology.
It’s a rare day when all of its 17 turbine generators work at the same time. Several are in pieces at any given moment. A couple even have little plywood roofs because falling bits of crumbling plaster from the station’s ceiling above gum them up. The sorry state of Pointe du Bois was known when Manitoba Hydro acquired the dam in 2002 as part of its purchase of Winnipeg Hydro, the former operator.
Back in the 1920s, the Pointe du Bois was cranking out almost 75 megawatts when it was running at full capacity.
Big stuff then, but a piddly amount now. A single turbine at the northern Manitoba Limestone generating station — its 10 turbines starting spinning in 1990 — can produce almost twice as much power as the entire Pointe du Bois plant.
It still produces cheap electricity — Pointe du Bois has paid for itself many times. It was built for $3.25 million — big money at the time, but a drop in the bucket compared to cost of a new dam today. (That same $3.25 million is worth about $67 million today.)
The question now is what to do with it?
"We want to keep it operating," Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said during a recent tour. "If we can keep it going."
"It is expected that Pointe du Bois will have to be used to its limit this year and next to fill the requirements of an increasing number of customers."
— Manitoba Free Press (June 14, 1926)
Pointe du Bois reached its "limit" in 1926, the same year Babe Ruth hit 47 home runs for the New York Yankees.
Since the addition of more dams on the Winnipeg River and the opening up of hydroelectric development in Manitoba’s north, it’s become increasingly obsolete, perhaps even useless.
And it’s been falling apart for years.
"Pointe du Bois has had a history of maintenance problems that are believed to be largely as a result of concrete growth as well as freeze/thaw deterioration at the plant," Hydro’s 2005-06 Power Resource Plan said. "Extensive repairs and upgrades have been undertaken at the plant. Unit outages continue to be a problem, largely due to frequent misalignments of the turbine generator units caused by the concrete growth."
Hydro once had a plan to build a new powerhouse at Pointe du Bois to produce up to 120 megawatts. It said a redeveloped Pointe du Bois offered benefits of reduced global greenhouse gas emissions and could supply backup power to Winnipeg to partially cover for a major outage on another part of the grid.
That kind of talk soon proved to be overly ambitious.
A 2005 estimate to replace the aging Pointe du Bois station was about $1.5 billion. That’s almost the same cost as the Wuskwatim generating station on the Burntwood River southwest of Thompson, Hydro’s newest dam. The final price tag on Wuskwatim hit $1.8 billion, more than twice the 2004 estimate of $800 million.
Hydro had also told the Public Utilities Board, the province’s watch-dog regulator, it wanted to replace the powerhouse and its spillway by 2016-17.
Hydro officials kiboshed that plan by June 2009. It was too unrealistic given what else it had on its plate and the harsh economic reality brought on by the recession.
The plan now calls for Hydro to continue its Band-Aid approach to Pointe du Bois — Hydro calls it "targeted maintenance" — allowing the powerhouse to grind out what power it can until 2030.
That’s because Hydro has more pressing capital priorities over the next 20 years, specifically the building of the Keeyask and Conawapa mega-dams on the Nelson River. Keeyask is projected to cost $6.2 billion and Conawapa $10.1 billion. The recently approved Bipole III transmission line down the west side of the province is tagged at $3.28 billion.
Hydro is also not convinced building a new powerhouse can be justified — building a new facility for the comparatively small amount of power it would produce may not be worth it.
According to one document submitted to the PUB, Hydro officials "have no great confidence" the powerhouse will actually ever be rebuilt. In fact, the thinking is it will simply be decommissioned.
"This isn’t a future development job," Schneider said during the tour. "It’s basically a maintenance job."
Hydro is also slowly dismantling the nearby townsite, which was built when the dam was constructed. Hydro announced earlier this year that the 20 remaining residents had to move out of the town by Jan. 1, 2015, saying the utility was not in the business of being a landlord or running towns. It added many of the homes are rundown and not worth saving. A dozen homes and the former curling rink are to be demolished this year.
The PUB has effectively stated the same thing about the future of the Pointe Du Bois powerhouse, saying last April that a new powerhouse did not appear to make any sense in providing cost-effective energy.
The PUB had wanted Pointe du Bois to be included in the upcoming Needs for and Alternatives To (NFAT) process as it examines the value of the Keeyask and Conawapa projects. The NFAT could recommend it would be smarter economically than building new dams, such as a new thermal generating plant that burns natural gas, or adding more wind turbines.
But the PUB won’t get to look at Pointe du Bois.
The provincial government’s terms of reference for the upcoming NFAT excluded Pointe du Bois from the hearing’s scope.
"The Pointe du Bois plant came into service in 1911. In 1927, the height of the spillway was raised by adding a concrete pier to the original wall and dropping curtains of planks between them. However, action of frost and water loosened the piers from the base dam and this summer they had to be replaced."
— Winnipeg Free Press (Sept. 5, 1953)
Just a short distance away from the aging concrete powerhouse is a construction area roughly the size of about 10 football stadiums. Activity runs 24 hours a day seven days a week and involves about 300 workers.
While the Pointe du Bois powerhouse has been scratched from Hydro’s to-do list, the original spillway has not.
The old spillway, installed in 1911 and upgraded in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, has reached the end of its useful life.
It’s too dangerous, too old and too unreliable, so it’s being replaced by a new, $560-million spillway. The new spillway and its control gates will do what the old spillway can’t — maintain the historic flow of the Winnipeg River and protect about a two-kilometre downstream stretch from flooding should the old spillway burst.
That area is mostly cottage country. Hydro has calculated that should the old spillway suddenly fail, there would be precious little time to warn the 46 property owners in harm’s way to seek higher ground. The potential loss of life and property is incalculable.
"The reality is that no one can predict what would happen and where local residents, children and visitors might be on the day of a failure," a 2012 Hydro document said.
Schneider said the old spillway also didn’t meet the specifications for dam safety as set by the Canadian Dam Association.
"We had to be concerned that if there was a dam failure, what that would mean to the surrounding area in terms of flooding," he said.
"This is a very old structure and its had a long extended spillway. Many of the gates had to be manually operated. They had to go out even in the winter and manually change it with stop logs. It’s hazardous work."
A stop log is a square timber that’s dropped into slots inside each of the spillway gates, one on top of the other, to control the river’s water level and flow, or to redirect excess water around the powerhouse.
Hydro workers have had to walk down the narrow pathway — not even wide enough for an ATV — and push a gantry crane to help raise and lower the timbers. In winter, those timbers are often locked in river ice and have to be de-iced. It’s not easy — or safe — work.
Since last January, construction crews have blasted 450,000 cubic metres of Precambrian granite on the other side of the river from the old powerhouse to carve a deep channel for a new spillway. More rock will be blasted in late November. The amount of rock blasted so far is the same amount of snow Russia plans to freeze so that there is enough for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
The spillway and its seven bays are to be in use by the end of next year and the entire construction site returned to its natural state months later. This includes removing a temporary bridge built over the river.
"This will be a push-button operation right from the powerhouse," Manitoba Hydro project manager Barry Nazar said, at the base of the new hydraulic spillway gates. "We’ll be maintaining similar water levels as before. Basically, the water will flow right through."
Schneider said there’s no connection between building the spillway and the likelihood of Hydro of replacing the powerhouse at a later date. The new spillway will be used to control the flow of the Winnipeg River regardless of the power station’s future.
The old spillway will be decommissioned, but it won’t be demolished. As much steel will be stripped off it as possible, but its concrete skeleton will remain as a reminder of past technology.
"I think I know enough about the subject to know this when red flags go up. And I have seen them go up just about everywhere I care to look in this case."
— Retired Manitoba Hydro engineer Per Stokke to the PUB, Dec. 12, 2012.
Voice of reason or stuck in the past?
Both have been used to describe Per Stokke, who retired from Manitoba Hydro in 2004 and spent part of his career studying what to do about Pointe du Bois.
In retirement, Stokke has been one of the dissenting voices of the new spillway and its cost.
He maintains there were several of other cheaper but just as effective ways to repair the old spillway and keep it intact, such as a 2005 independent recommendation to extend the spillway’s life by 50 years at a maximum cost of $45 million.
"The evidence as far as I have seen it shows that the spillway replacement is completely unnecessary," he said. "It’s a waste of over a half-billion dollars."
Stokke disputes Hydro’s findings that the old spillway could fail. He believes it has overestimated the risk of a probable maximum flood.
"That skewed all the economic evaluation as far as I’m concerned," he said.
He also believes that with a new spillway in place, it’s only a matter of time before Hydro announces it wants to build a new generating station.
"The spillway has no revenue associated to it. It’s total waste unless of course the dam safety claim is correct."
And there’s only one cottage at risk of flooding should the old spillway have failed, he said. "You don’t build a $560-million spillway to protect that."
A proper examination of the spillway replacement has been lost in the public debate over the Bipole III transmission line and the construction of the proposed Keeyask and Conawapa dams, he said.
"It’s in the shadow of all those other huge expenditures. It goes unnoticed. Nobody stops and asks if $560 million is a huge waste. It kind of drowns when you compare it to $20 billion.
"The reason they are getting away with this is nobody seems to be interested. Nobody wants to be bothered. I get sad when I think about. There are alternatives ways of doing it, but they don’t get to be voiced."
Women of Winnipeg! In mansion and cottage alike, this extra pair of hands, Cheap Power, is busy Sweeping — washing — ironing — in a score of ways these hands relieve you of the drudgery of housework.
Thanks to Hydro, it costs less to employ this willing helper than anywhere else, for electrical rates in Winnipeg are the lowest known."
— Manitoba Free Press ad extolling benefits of building the next new dam at Slave Falls (Nov. 12, 1928)
Slave Falls, about 10 kilometres downstream from Pointe du Bois, is also on Hydro’s things-to-worry-about list of aging infrastructure.
Like Pointe du Bois, it’s a former Winnipeg Hydro generating station.
It started producing power in 1931 with additional generation added in 1948, giving it a capacity of 67 megawatts. It was built to meet increasing power demands in Winnipeg as Pointe du Bois had reached its capacity.
Hydro would also like to replace it with newer technology, but not for while.
"The most recent depreciation study concluded similarly that this facility was in good condition and it was estimated that the remaining life of Slave Falls assets ranged from 40-55 years," Hydro said in a 2009 document submitted to the PUB.
Also on Hydro’s wish list are major turbine/generator overhauls at $126 million and spillway rehabilitation at $46 million.
"These capital expenditure amounts reflect required spending over the next 10 years, which includes not only immediately required repairs, but also those required to ensure the plant will be able to operate in a safe, efficient, and reliable manner over for the foreseeable future.
"The Slave Falls facility is in good condition and, with the identified major capital expenditures, is expected to provide good service for the foreseeable future."
Hydro’s new customer
Northern Minnesota just doesn’t need electricity from Manitoba to keep the TV and lights on—it needs it to meet growing demand in the state’s mining industry.
There are wide bands of iron ore and other metals waiting to be untapped in an area called the iron range between Bemidji and Duluth.
Minnesota Power needs the additional energy from Manitoba Hydro — the 250-megawatt sale was announced by the province more than two years ago — to meet that expected mining and related development, company vice president David McMillan said.
McMillan said specifically, the new power is needed for iron ore or ferrous mining and proposed copper and nickel mining.
"If those non-ferrous copper and nickel projects can go we have lots of load growth," McMillan said in an interview. "That’s where this opportunity with Manitoba Hydro is so perfect because you folks are developing a resource that we have contractual rights to do more with if we want to."
That load growth, and the deal Minnesota Power has with Hydro, requires the construction of the 695-megawatt Keeyask generating station on the lower Nelson River within the next decade. It requires the Bipole III transmission line running down the west side of the province to carry additional hydroelectric power to southern Manitoba. It also requires a new 500-kilovolt line from Winnipeg to the Minnesota border where it will hook up with the proposed Great Northern Transmission line to run to Duluth.
Minnesota Power will own 51 per cent of the line while a subsidiary of Manitoba Hydro will own 49 per cent. Minnesota Power recently filed for approval of the line with state regulator Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
McMillan said Keeyask and the new line will not only provide a secure source of power for the mining sector, but allow Minnesota to further diversify its energy holdings away from coal to renewable sources, including wind from its projects in North Dakota.
The company’s goal is to move from 20 per cent renewable energy and 80 per cent coal in its current holdings to one-third renewable (wind from North Dakota and hydro power from Manitoba), one-third natural gas and one-third coal.
"Your slice is 11 to 12 per cent of our total," he said of Hydro. "That’ll fit right nicely into our sustainable energy piece.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently gave its approval for a $430-million (U.S.) upgrade to Minnesota Power’s Boswell Unit 4 in Cohasset, Minn., one of the state’s largest coal-burning power plants. The upgrade will bring the 585-megawatt generator into compliance with state and federal regulations to reduce mercury emissions. The retrofit will see the Duluth-based power company’s 144,000 residential customers face a significant boost in rates. Minnesota Power also distributes electricity to a 45,000-square-kilometre region that includes the iron range and some of the country’s largest industrial users, including 10 that require 10 megawatts or more of generating capacity.
McMillan said the company will not add more natural gas to its power-generating plans because it isn’t economical.
"Even in a really cheap gas world, coal is still half that on a cost basis," he said.
He added power produced from its North Dakota wind farms is not enough to meet expected demand as it’s too intermittent.
"It’s high-quality wind, but we still need another resource to depend on and most utilities are going to gas to do that. We think that the hydro opportunity, if we can get the transmission built, is better than anything out there."
Cooking with electricity
A hundred years ago, most food in Winnipeg was cooked on wood stoves.
Cooking any other way was alien to anyone who ate.
Enter the City of Winnipeg Hydroelectric System formed by city council in 1906. That was the same year the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company opened the Pinawa dam on the Winnipeg River, the province’s first year-round generating station to power the city’s streetcars.
The City of Winnipeg Hydroelectric System wanted wider use of electricity to accelerate residential and commercial growth.
It opened the Pointe du Bois generating station in 1911. Power generated from it saw the early beginnings of cooking and heating water with electricity, although the First World War delayed things.
By 1917, there were 1,176 electric stoves and hot water heaters in the city. By 1924, the number reached 14,091 and today there are an estimated 285,000 residences in Winnipeg with electric stoves.
"During and following the war the cost of all commodities and necessaries have show extraordinary increase, but in Winnipeg electricity not only has not increased in cost but has actually become cheaper," a 1925 City of Winnipeg Hydroelectric System brochure says. "The citizens are firmly convinced that this would not have been true had they themselves not entered the field of hydro-electric operation with their publicly-owned system."