by David Flint
Two weeks after Beacon Power celebrated the completion of their frequency regulation plant in Stephentown, a serious mishap has occurred that has people in town wondering. As Kevin Sweener was driving down Route 22 from Berlin on Wednesday evening, July 27, he saw a cloud of smoke coming from the direction of the Beacon Power plant. Turning onto Grange Hall Road he passed by the plant and determined that the smoke was definitely coming from there. Sweener called a member of the Stephentown Fire Department who relayed the call to 911. Word quickly spread around town that there had been an explosion at Beacon Power. The Stephentown Fire Department responded promptly.
Fire Chief Joseph Zwack said they received the call at 6:30 pm. Arriving on the scene they found a lot of dust and soot but no fire. Whatever happened it had enough force to blow the concrete cover at least partially off of one of the 200 flywheel units. He said the Fire Department did not enter the plant because the plant has its own suppression system in case of equipment failure. Zwack and Assistant Chief Rik McClave interviewed members of a maintenance crew from Beacon Power who arrived shortly afterward. They assured Zwack that the company would give the Department a full report as soon as staff has had time to assess the situation and determine the cause. One of the things Zwack will want to know is whether the appropriate alarms went off as they were designed to do.
Beacon Power Communications Director Gene Hunt said he had not yet had a chance to view the damage but believed it was a case of a single failed flywheel. The one megawatt pod in which that flywheel resides has been shut down temporarily, but the rest of the plant is continuing to run as normal. He said it should not be labeled an explosion and there was no fire. It was rather a matter of the flywheel coming unraveled. “It failed in the way it is designed to fail,” he said, “It grinds itself into dust.” It looks terrible but is not dangerous and the sooty material that gets spewed out is actually harmless carbon fiber dust from the unraveled flywheel, he added. An automatic suppression system, he said, acts to keep most of the dust down. There is no toxic material, he said, and the flywheels are well contained in their concrete housings.
Hunt could not say for sure why the concrete cover was partially blown off because vents in the cover are designed for a controlled release of the air pressure that would be generated by a disintegrating flywheel. Why that did not work exactly as designed, he said, is one of the things that a team already on site will be working to determine.