The Varahi Power Plant is Karnataka’s first underground Powerhouse. It is a Hydro Power Plant with a design capacity of 460MW and has 4 operating units each individually giving 115MW output. It supplies power to both Mangalore and Shimoga from where it is sold. Why am I boring you with this information? Because on November 15th, 2013 my friend shut down the entire plant for approximately 40 minutes at around 2 in the afternoon.
No, my friend was not some eco-friendly activist and the power plant was not illegally dumping waste in the nearby river. No, my friend wasn’t on some Breaking Bad stunt to steal Methyl-amine. My friend however was gifted with some extremely bad luck. Which also gave me a story to write, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. So, we set out on an industrial trip from my college to visit this amazing power plant. I am skipping the bus trip, the overnight stay at some random hotel, the breakfast, the lunch and going directly ahead to the point where we entered the power plant.
Now because it’s underground, there are these huge tunnels which lead to the various operating units. We followed the 500 metres long tunnel to go to the place where the main control operations took place. The tunnels looked like a place where the Batmobile would be right at home. We were lead to the place where we had the generators and the power controls for those generators. Okay I am not going into the technical details of the generators, the turbines, the ancillary services [insert complex words], headboard, etc, because somehow I think you don’t really care about that. Let’s get down to what you need to know. This is a picture I created about how the place for the main generator control looked. (Sorry I couldn’t find actual pictures. It’s forbidden to take them)
So each panel controls each of the four generators. Our guide, some female with a kind of permanent scowl on her face, showed us around these boards. What I need you to focus on is the big red button bang in the centre of this panel. Obviously this little button is the focus of the story. If you put an innocent looking button in the middle of a huge panel, a button that is probably in charge of something important, you cover it with glass or a steel box. You don’t let it remain in the open, nude, where it can be touched by all and sundry. You don’t put some damn padding on the floor around the control board and expect people to realize that you have to step outside this area. What’s more the guide had told us this button was feather-touch, which makes it seem that all the elements of a great plot were already set, it just needed the right touch.
So my friend is going along with the crowd and the guide finishes explaining about the control panel operations. Then as my friend went forward, someone slightly bumped into him and he touched THE button. The EMERGENCY Shut Down button.The rest as they say is history. That button shut off one the generators and havoc reigned supreme. Immediately its like a thousand sirens went of all around us. This conveys how everyone reacted.
Never before have I seen such a scenario. Everyone lost their shit. I expected one person to come forward, smoothly take charge of the situation, handle it, get it under control and resolve it. No one obliged. Meanwhile, when we first entered there had been a huge display showing the power output and also the operating frequency of the plant (50 Hertz in India). After this we could see the power output go down to around 345 MW and the frequency drop. What happened was that once one of the generators stopped, the job of supplying that 460MW was spread to the other three. So since it was not capable of handling that load, the plant immediately shut itself down. Here is a random googled picture I found though.
For minutes, we stood there, confused, some people consoling my friend who still looked like he wasn’t sure what exactly had happened. People ran around, the lady guide glared at my friend, some managers came and managed stuff, and technicians came by the truckloads. We were still standing wondering what was going to happen to us. After around 20 minutes, with the typical attention span of our generation we got bored. We strolled around the place, some sat on the floor, some grouped up and chatted. The continually wailing siren in the background became a part of the ambient noise. Only my friend now looked like he was going to get the death sentence and had accepted his fate.
After 40 minutes the situation seemed resolved. Our HOD (Head of Department) apologized on our behalf and convinced the workers to take us around again. Later we heard that due this incident, the people in the operating stations got calls from Bangalore about what the hell was happening. And of course for those 40 minutes, Mangalore and Shimoga remained powerless. The rest of this tale shall never be told because it is shrouded in boredom and lots of technical details about the plant and its various levels. But thats how you shut down a power plant. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Go on. Make your industrial trip memorable. Have a nice day.