General News

Dave Abbey (left), resident engineer for Merz, McLennan and Partners with Terry Commerford supervising the arrival and installation of the first turbine.

The Koolkhan oil-fired electricity generators

by John McNamara

Have you ever wondered what the significance of the two huge fuel tanks off to the left at Koolkhan, soon after crossing the railway line, as you drive north on the Summerland Way from Junction Hill?

In early January 1982, about 400 electricians walked off the job indefinitely at three State Electricity Commission (SEC) power stations in support of their claim after refusing a State Industrial Commission recommendation to lift bans imposed seven weeks ago. About 300 returned to work on the 18th but the state still has a supply shortfall.

At the same time, 17,000 mine workers were facing a lock out of the state’s coal mines from the 13th. The SEC coal mines were not exempt, and the state faced a critical power shortage situation. By the 18th, 30,000 colliery employees were on strike. By the 23rd, coal supplies at NSW power stations were dwindling fast and there was a threat of an introduction of severe zone power rationing.

The state government introduced a Power Conservation campaign pending voluntary reduction in electricity usage which appeared to be working until, on 29 April, maintenance workers at Liddell power station went on strike halting all repair work on generating equipment that went out of service in late 1981. These generators were urgently needed to cope with the winter demand, so the crisis was ongoing. This dispute was eventually resolved, and urgent repairs were carried out.

In early March, the government made an announcement that it was installing 12 huge new oil-fired generators with four (one French and 3 Japanese) at three sites with four to be placed at the site of the old Northern Rivers County Council’s coal-fired Koolkhan Power Station, which closed in 1979. It had previously used coal from the Nymboida coal mine. Each generator was valued at about $4 million. When completed, each generator could produce up to 25 megawatts of power to be fed directly into the SEC’s state-wide grid on demand. It was reasoned that even with the electricians and mine workers on strike, electricity could be ensured by flicking a switch on the turbines.

Resident Engineer on the site, Colin Gosling, who was an associate of Merz, McLennan and Partners, who designed the sub-station for the SEC, stated normally construction of a sub-station of similar size would take up to 14 months but work at Koolkhan was expected to be completed by 15 May, less than four months after it was started.

The contractor was Transfield Holdings which was founded in 1956 and had an electricity industry origin. By the early 1980s it had in excess of 3,000 employees and an annual turnover of $350 million. Among its achievements were the Gateway Bridge at Brisbane and the Sydney Harbour Tunnel.

Dave Wonder was the engineer on site for Transfield. He engaged Terry Commerford, a local building contractor, as prime sub-contractor and hire local tradesmen and professionals (including the author) generally on the recommendation of Terry. About 200 labourers, mainly local men, engineers and Japanese technical officers toiled 10 hours a day, 70 hours per week from 5 February to have the four generators on-line by 15 May.

At the time there was a serious downturn in the economy and the project was a lifeline for many in the Clarence Valley. Transfield supervisors were very impressed with the competency and output of the local workmen who completed the construction works at half the cost and in half the time compared with the other two turbine sites.

By 23 May, the first generator was in place and the others within three weeks. Four cranes were required to lift each unit directly off a road transport onto a ready-laid concrete block. The author was engaged to carry out all survey work at the site, setting out roads and structure locations. I recall setting up the timber framework for the first block. There were several upright threaded steel posts onto which the unit would be lowered and bolted. I was told there was about a 5mm tolerance in the metal rings on the unit, so a foreman and I spent some hours squaring and checking the framework. The cement mixer arrived next morning and promptly nudged the structure much to our horror. Luckily there was found to be more than 20mm tolerance, so the units were lowered and bolted safely.

Meanwhile, by early June, the fuel tanks had been constructed under the supervision of a sub-contractor Jose Blanco, a Spaniard from Sydney, and were finally filled before carrying out a successful 36-hour reliability test of the generators. The diesel was mainly used to run the construction machinery on site.
It was revealed that each turbine would use 8,000 litres of fuel per hour, costing almost $3,000. SEC officers declared the new generators “… will strengthen the whole north-eastern section of the State, minimising blackouts and breakdowns in the region during the high demand period in winter”. However, it was estimated that to run the units for at least four hours daily for five days a week for the 13-week span of winter would cost at least $3.1 million. Despite the cost, the SEC adopted a policy of “power at any cost”. It was proposed to use them as important back-up units in a final ditch effort to prop up the state grid.
The turbines were maintained until 1987 but were seldom needed before being sold off and removed from the Koolkhan site, leaving only the fuel tanks as a legacy to the works.