Ensuring our biggest power station keeps running involves daily saliva testing, standby camper-vans and remote control technology. 

“One reflection on saliva testing,” Scott Westbury texts after we talk. “Drooling on demand is initially harder than it sounds.”

That was just one of the things I had never thought about when I considered the intricacies of keeping a power station network running during a pandemic. Drooling.

But it’s just part of Scott Westbury’s day.

Westbury is general manager of Genesis Power Schemes – a guy tasked with keeping Genesis’s Huntly coal/gas power station and the company’s three hydro schemes operating even when the country is locked down.

Scott Westbury is tasked with keeping Huntly operating in lockdown, though these days he’s not allowed on site. Photo: Supplied

It’s a job that became particularly topical in light of blackouts the week before the Covid community resurgence, blackouts which reminded the rest of us just how critical Huntly is to providing electricity for New Zealand when demand is strong. 

Genesis and grid operator Transpower copped flak over the fact one of Huntly’s coal-fired units, a unit which could have been brought on-stream to prevent the power cut if the seriousness of the situation had been recognised in time, wasn’t ready to be used.

A week later, an unrelated power line failure put the spotlight back on Huntly on the same night the country went back into lockdown.

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Level 4 meant Westbury needed to get all but a skeleton crew off the Huntly site, ensure social distancing, introduce bubbles into rosters, keep crews separate at shift change, and ramp up daily Covid testing – all with the eyes of the country on the company.

Oh, and it’s the middle of winter, with all the demands that brings in terms of light and heating.

No pressure.

Running Genesis’s hydroelectric power system in lockdown isn’t too bad, Westbury says. The company has eight hydro power stations in three schemes: Waikaremoana and Tongariro in the North Island and Tekapo in the South.

All can be run either individually or centrally from a control centre at the Tokaanu power station, and the people working on each can be used interchangeably. 

If necessary, Genesis could run its Tekapo hydro station from its Tongariro control centre. Photo: Supplied

If you can run one Genesis hydro power station, you can run ’em all, so to speak.

But Huntly – that’s another story. The thermal power station is much more complex, and staff need quite different qualifications and training. 

Worse, there’s no backup. By and large, the people who can run Huntly, live around Huntly. If Covid gets there, that’s a problem.

Keeping the power on in lockdown is about making sure the four teams of critical staff needed to run the power station 24/7 – 12 or13 people in all – are kept separate from each other. If the members of one team got Covid, that would be hard. But if it spread to other teams, that’s a disaster.

There is a long list of Level 4 protocols, including shift handover taking place with the two teams in different rooms talking via large video screens, Westbury says. There’s even a dedicated cleaner for the control room. 

Then there’s Level 4+. If Covid comes to Huntly (and with the town is less than 100km from Auckland with its 200-plus locations of interest) then Genesis moves to implement its emergency management plan, code-named Level 4+.

That is when the company moves self-contained camper-vans onto the power station site and essential staff start living at work. 

Genesis brought campervans onto the Huntly site for the 2020 lockdown. Photo: Wilderness.co.nz

“It would be similar to managed isolation,” Westbury says. “Their home would be a camper-van on site and food would be delivered to them.”

How do people feel about that?

“We had a conversation with our teams and worked out what would be the minimum numbers we needed. Most of our key staff understand if we aren’t here to run the plant, the lights go off in New Zealand.” 

Daily saliva testing 

But the pièce de résistance of Genesis’s Huntly Covid response is daily saliva testing. It’s a new regime, introduced as a pilot about a month ago, coincidentally just as the Australia-New Zealand bubble started raising the spectre of the Delta variant arriving from across the Tasman.

The saliva testing, one step up from temperature checks and health questions the company was using before, came about after conversations between senior Genesis management and New Zealand-based saliva testing company Rako Science earlier this year, Westbury says.

“At the time there wasn’t a huge need, but we started thinking about the criticality of Huntly and what it would mean for New Zealand if it wasn’t available.”

Ministry of Health says saliva testing is as accurate as nasal swabs. Photo: Supplied

Seventeen staff members, mostly management and support staff, were sent to Rako’s Auckland lab to learn the protocols and procedures around taking a saliva sample. 

Twelve of these new laboratory experts have since being accredited (the rest are in process) and trial testing started at Huntly in July – just in time for lockdown. 

These days, any staff member rostered to work at the power station the following day is tested the morning before their shift starts, after which a courier takes the swabs to Auckland, and results come through late afternoon. 

“You’ll be tested before you come on site, and when you are onsite, you are tested again.”

It’s not cheap – reports suggest a single Rako saliva test costs around $60, though Genesis presumably gets a bulk deal. As far as Westbury knows, Huntly is the only power station operator in the country doing daily Covid testing.

“It’s because Huntly is such a significant part of the network.”

But if they needed to start testing at Tokaanu, it wouldn’t be hard, he says. Testers just need laptops, booths and testing kits.  

Mixed reality repair work

And the Microsoft HoloLens? Where front-line technicians wearing a headset connect real-time to remote assistance and can work hands-free on a piece of equipment with guidance floating magically in the air in front of them … where does this so-called “mixed reality” technology come into Genesis’ Covid lockdown response?

Remote control HoloLens technology helped Genesis install a complex piece of equipment with international help. Photo: Microsoft.com

That’s if something goes horribly wrong, Westbury says, and Huntly engineers need to use big guns from overseas to mend or install a critical bit of kit.

In a normal world, power station operators are working on their plant all the time to keep it up and running smoothly, he says.

“But at Level 4, you have to scale everything back. We do the things which are critical and nothing else,” Westbury says. “So you increase your risk profile.”

If something in the plant broke, the first step would be to get local experts on site and into a work bubble and a testing regime to fix the problem.

But some problems need an overseas specialist, which is where the HoloLens comes in.

During lockdown last year, for example, Genesis commissioned a new piece of equipment to clean up coal dust, working via HoloLens with an engineer from the UK. “The English person could see what we could see and they could use their display to guide us.”

It sounds hard. I ask Westbury, is this the sort of thing that keeps you up at night? Not just the HoloLens, but the whole responsibility of keeping workers safe, and the lights and heaters on for New Zealanders in lockdown?

Not really, he says. “We’ve done this enough and learnt how to make the controls work for us, and we can’t think of a more robust way of doing things.”

It’s amazing what you can get used to.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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