Across the East River from Manhattan, construction workers are erecting two separate power plants intended to help solve the city's power problems. One contractor has been constructing the electrical systems for the NYPA 500 MW and the Astoria Energy 500 MW power plants in Astoria, Queens. E-J Electric Installation Co., Long Island City, N.Y., was tapped to tackle the wiring for the two mammoth projects. The company, founded in 1899, is the oldest electrical contractor in the country, and one of the largest in New York. This family owned business has spanned three generations since Jacques R. Mann came to E-J Electric in 1912. His son, J. Robert Mann Jr., eventually took the reins and is currently chairman and CEO while Robert's son, Tony Mann, is president.

E-J Electric saw New York through the electricity transition at the beginning of the last century. The company wired the first street lights in the 1920s and led the shipbuilding industry during World War II. The company's latest challenge is the wiring of the two concurrent power plants, less than a mile apart on the East River, with up to 230 men on each site.

Even before the August 2003 blackout, the city was seeking a better power source. Thanks to legislation preceding the blackout, the city is striving to ensure 80 percent of its electricity is generated within its five boroughs. Both the NYPA and Astoria Energy plants are combined cycle units intended to supply New York with a large share of that power. They can operate on natural gas or oil. Each has two gas-fired turbines that feed Heated Recovery Steam Generators (HRSGs), which drive a steam turbine at each of the plants.

Astoria Energy 500 MW power plant

E-J Electric took on this design-build project in Astoria, Queens, owned by Astoria Energy, in 2003. E-J Electric was called into the design phase and sent its engineers and managers to Houston to work with the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor.

“We brought a New York conception [to the table],” said E-J Electric project executive Richard Dominy.

That included a full understanding of New York zoning regulations, codes and fire department requirements.

“Anywhere we can assist in cutting costs and duplication of efforts, we like to do it,” Dominy said.

When a project isn't design-build, E-J Electric engineers must use existing drawings to make the electric work feasible. But by working directly with the EPC contractor and construction team, E-J Electric was able to help prepare just one drawing.

“We prefer to do design-build,” Dominy said. “It saves everybody time and money.”

After a six- to eight-month design process, E-J Electric arrived at the construction site while demolition of the old Castle Oil tanks were underway. E-J Electric began with the temporary power, stepping up an existing Con Edison power source from 208 to 480 volts. With 230 more electricians, the company wired “Phase One.” When “Phase Two” is completed, the plant could double in size.

The Astoria Energy plant is expected to provide up to 540 MW through Phase One. Because the plant sits on a former petroleum distributor site, the general contractor ensured environmental concerns were alleviated before construction began.

Construction was designed to be one of the most aggressive power plant construction schedules ever performed in New York City. E-J Electric Heavy Power team had 13 months until it was to be first fired up. Because much of the plant was assembled prior to its arrival, the project moved quickly.

The most dramatic construction example is the fabrication of the HRSG units, each weighing approximately 2,500 tons. The units, which shipped out of Indonesia, managed to miss the 2004 tsunami, squeeze through the Panama Canal-only after ladders on the side of the ship were removed-and slipped under the Brooklyn Bridge after the ship took on a ballast to lower it 5 inches for clearance.

Getting them to the job site from Indonesia, each in one giant piece, was one of the project's largest hurdles.

“Everyone, including the insurance companies, were breathing a lot easier,” Dominy said.

The HRSGs were individually rolled off the ship when the tide was at the proper level and brought to the sight on self-propelled hydrolyzed trailers.

“I've been in construction 30 years and I've never seen anything like that,” Dominy said.

In the meantime, E-J Electric constructed one mile of 138,000 volt transmission line, a combination of overhead steel poles and underground duct banks, and a connection to Con Edison's Astoria East Substation. Workers put 75,000 feet of PVC conduit in the ground. The switchgear rooms came to the project in eight modules.

The air-cooled condenser, built in Virginia, arrived on a barge in 24 cells, unloaded two at a time. Once constructed, Astoria Energy's turbine building stands 110 feet high while the two exhaust stacks reach 269 feet high.

Gas emitted from the combustion turbines passes through the heat recovery steam generators and is cleaned to meet environmental standards. The facility's 24-cell air-cooled condenser intended to reduce water consumption by 90 percent or more when compared to plants that use cooling towers.

First firing is scheduled for December 2005. Dominy attributes the speed of the project in part to the modulization.

“This was an innovation to do it this way,” Dominy said. “It was the only way to meet the agressive schedule.”

NYPA 500 MW power plant

E-J Electric began with the NYPA power plant, commonly known as the Poletti project, with a contract in February 2003.

Like Astoria, the Poletti project has a dual-fuel capability, allowing it to burn natural gas or oil. The company buys natural gas from suppliers who pump it directly to the plant. Oil is delivered in barges and stored in tanks with a total capacity of 36 million gallons. The boiler is 18 stories high, with 36 burners lining one of its walls.

Whether burning gas or oil, the $650-million facility operates on the same principle as the Astoria plant. E-J Electric provided a full time engineering staff with 3-D autoCAD design capabilities.

The staff reviewed the design documents, made modifications for constructability, requested amendments as required to meet local codes and created field installation drawings for the 225,000 feet of above-ground conduit required.

Once on-site, E-J Electric began by designing and building the temporary power supply. Although Con Edison provided the project with 480 volts at two locations at the site, it was not sufficient to power the entire complex.

Because of the distance between the power supply and the distribution on the site, (from the power source to the last point of distribution was 3,000 feet), E-J Electric's first task was to install transformers and step the power up to 5 kV. Workers then stepped the power down to the individual locations throughout the work site to 480 volts.

E-J Electric also got into the trenches and installed 40,000 feet of rigid galvanized conduit underground. Installing rigid, rather than PVC, is more difficult and time consuming. E-J Electric cut the 3-, 4- and 5-inch-diameter metal piping, which weighed in at 70 to 140 pounds apiece. Then the pieces were threaded and couplings put on.

“The installation went in without a single lost run, and the quality was second to none,” said Tom Kregel, E-J Electric NYPA 500 project manager.

Workers began the installation of 40,000 feet of underground conduit in the worst snowstorms of 2003 and were forced to run conduit in snow.

“That year winter extended into April,” Dominy said.

Because the switchgear and control room would be located in the turbine building, E-J Electric installed about 1.9 million feet of cable, bringing the power back to the one turbine building. To save time, the company installed the switchgear before the steel was set. To protect the switchgear from weather and construction around it, workers set up heaters, ran tarps above the switchgear to protect it from precipitation, and also ran scaffolding above to prevent falling debris from causing any damage. By having the switchgear in place early, E-J Electric was ready to go with the cable trays as soon as the steel was in.

In summer 2003, the power went out. Initially thinking it was an isolated incident, it was soon learned that the entire metro area was blacked out. While much of New York City was without power for three days, at the Poletti site, it only was about two days.

Because the work was on a river, large equipment was brought in by barge and kept down river in the storage area about a half-mile from the site.

“Everything was stick built,” Dominy said, including the boiler. Construction crews built the equipment piece by piece.

Due to harsh weather and delays in construction and equipment deliveries, the project ultimately fell behind schedule. E-J Electric averaged 120 workers on the site, with a peak of 180. By spring 2004, electricians began working in two shifts from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight.

By the project's completion, E-J Electric will have installed 1.9 million linear feet of cable, 295,000 linear feet of conduit and 29,000 linear feet of cable tray. The company connected the plant to a Con Edison Astoria West substation about 150 yards away.

Both projects neared completion without any major problems. But for E-J Electric, this is typical. The company has been working mostly problem-free for more than a century.

“Strong relations with Local 3 IBEW was important to a successful project,” Dominy said.

But the company's vast experience in power generation plants, as well as highly quality people and resources, was just as crucial. Mann pointed to not only the project managers, field supervision and electricians, but the team of 25 engineers on staff and the home office support.

“It's unparalleled what we can bring to the project,” Mann said. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.