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Norte III: the story behind the most challenging project in Ciudad Juarez

Published 15.9.2022

The power plant, which supplies electricity to over half a million homes in the North of Mexico, is now fully operational, after passing a complex—and harrowing—energization test. 

Lying just 32 kilometers from Ciudad Juárez, the Norte III power plant is one of the largest and most challenging engineering projects in the history of Mexico. Thanks to its complex combined cycle circuit, it supplies power to over half a million homes in the northern region of the country, feeding more than 906 megawatts (MW) per day of energy into the local electricity grid.

Operating the plant has required the deployment of a major security and logistics operation in order to keep workers safe, since it’s located in one of the most dangerous areas in the State of Chihuahua.

Everything seemed to be ready to perform the reverse energization test in order to check the correct operation of the main transformer, which was the steam turbine.

“When we got the sign to energize, we were all waiting, perfectly coordinated, from field personnel to control room engineers. The countdown went from three to one,” recalls Erick Jasso, Commissioning Technician.

However, to everyone's surprise, an unexpected and critical problem broke out at the start of the test. The engineers detected an overload in the system, and barely a few seconds later, there was an explosion in the metering transformer room. The plant suddenly powered down.

“When this happened, all the alarms went off in the control room. We sprinted to the operation screens to find out what was going on,” continues Jasso. Alejandro Izascun, Commissioning Superintendent, adds, “The people in the field confirmed that something didn’t sound right. That was when we took the decision to halt the test.”

Faced with this unforeseen event, the company's engineers found themselves working against the clock, frantically searching for a solution to enable the team to meet the project deadlines. Along with representatives from the parts supplier, they scanned all the records, drawings and circuit data, only to conclude that there had been a variant in the equipment design that the manufacturer had missed. It was a matter of getting a replacement part and repeating the test. But there was another complication: the supplier was a company far away in Japan, so the part would take more than a month to arrive. “Having the plant shut down meant incurring costs of over USD 100,000 an hour,” remembers Jasso.

Karina Martínez Pérez, Head of Commissioning, explains that "the plant functions with two identical steam circuits working in parallel, so we actually had another transformer that was already working properly."

After going over the analysis several times, the team decided to use the measurement transformer that was working in the other module, transferring it over so that they could carry out the test.

This was a risky decision, as there was every chance that the only transformer in working order would also end up being damaged. If that were to happen, the plant would be shut down for months, implying colossal economic losses, plus the need to buy two new transformers. "The truth is that this would have been a disaster," confesses Martínez Pérez.

Jorge González, Electrical Design Engineer, shares, “We had to carry out detailed and extensive checks on this second unit so that we could be sure that everything was really up to the mark. Clearly, taking this decision was also a leap of faith!"

The timing of the retest was extremely tense, for obvious reasons. Izaskun recounts that, during the 20 minutes that the procedure lasted, everyone waited with bated breath, standing still and in silence, with only the noise of the engines running in the background.

Suddenly, the longed-for purring of the motor starting up was heard. Everything seemed to indicate that the energization process had been a success. The team had overcome the challenge and the plant was up and running. 

Jasso concludes that "This was a nerve-wracking and highly complex decision, but it was only thanks to the extensive problem-solving skills of the engineers that we were able to successfully resolve this hitch and achieve our milestone."

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