Stories & Features

Shipping (and salvaging) materials one of BC Hydro's biggest jobs

Materials campus in Surrey is spread over more than 30 football fields of space

Think of the best-organized workshop you've ever seen, the one that has cubbies, mason jars or drawers for everything from wall plugs to roofing nails, electrical switches to drill bits. Now imagine that supply space on steroids, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars worth of inventory.

Welcome to BC Hydro's Materials Management campus in Surrey, which combines a Home Depot-sized warehouse with two outdoor materials yards, oil treatment and other facilities on a campus the size of more than 30 football fields. This is where all that goes into building and maintaining BC Hydro's electrical system is ready to be shipped, on demand, to almost anywhere in the province.

To make that happen, an efficient system of product retrieval needs to work seamlessly. Working with a contracted 24/7 shipping service, we ship out nuts, bolts and 40,000-pound spools of power line (known as conductor) to locations ranging from Cranbrook, to Tofino, to Terrace and hundreds of places in between.

"The people who work here know what they're doing, and that's important, because this yard is 46 acres," says Brian Mills, acting central operations manager at the Surrey facility. "If you didn't have a good system of sorting material and organizing locations, you'd spend your whole day running around looking for stuff."

Shipments go out to regional materials "stores" on a regular basis, while other materials are shipped straight to work sites. And when something really big and unexpected happens, such as the August 29, 2015 windstorm that hammered southwest B.C., there's a frenzy of activity at the materials yard.

"We had crews on all day and all night, shipping out load after load," recalls field storekeeper Bryan Shehyn.

And most of what goes out comes back, salvaged or reused

BC Hydro has made minimizing waste a priority, in part because we don't want to clog landfills with old equipment, and in part because salvaged goods net us million of dollars each year.

More than 90% of waste was diverted from landfills last year, along with more than 1.2 million litres of oil, which is used primarily to insulate and cool transformers, the equipment used to increase or decrease voltages in the electrical system. After many years of use, oil is degraded by high temperatures and/or contaminated by chemical interactions with windings and other solid insulation. A key part of BC Hydro's operations in Surrey is around cleaning the oil of PCBs and other contaminants to bring it back up to standards that allow for reuse in transformers and other equipment.

"Oil-filled equipment comes back here to salvage," says Mills. "We drain it all, and all that oil goes across the street to the oil management department, where they clean it all up and recycle it."

Wooden reels (or spools) of wire are returned to the manufacturer, which pays back the deposit originally charged to BC Hydro. And that's a big deal, because – as of January 2017 – there were almost 7,000 reels shared between the Surrey campus and at job sites throughout B.C.

"For almost everything we own, there's extra, just in case," says Shehyn. "For instance, I just loaded three big reels, and we have one extra still here."

Copper is at or near the top of the list of priced salvage items, which is why BC Hydro and other utilities are waging an ongoing war with thieves who try to steal and sell the metal on the black market. Clean transformers are sold to metal recyclers, who often ship them overseas, where they're melted down and remanufactured as new products.

One innovation that helps keep materials operations as sustainable as possible is the use of Ropak bins that reduce the use of plastic used to shrink-wrap materials on pallets that are being shipped out. The Ropaks are essentially bins in which smaller items can be dropped into, protecting the items and boosting shipping efficiencies.

"The focus of the Ropaks currently is ADS (accessible direct ship) material – nuts and bolts and all the free issue stuff that's on the line and trucked," says Mills. "And with Ropaks, we can use deck space on truck more efficiently, because they're stackable."