Hayward power plant explosion blamed on equipment design flaws

The owner of a power plant in Hayward blames design issues and equipment failures – not human error -- for the explosion and fire that sent shrapnel flying into the air last May. But it’s also working to keep the detailed cause of the incident under wraps from the public.

The City of Hayward told KTVU last year that chunks of heavy metal, some weighing more than 50 pounds, traveled hundreds of feet onto neighboring city and community property when a steam turbine busted apart at the Russell City Energy Center.

No one was hurt.

The power plant, which has been in operation since 2013 and bills itself as a high efficient, combined-cycle electric generating facility is owned by Calpine.

This month, Calpine sent a letter to the California Energy Commission about the suspected cause of the explosion and subsequent fire.

Calpine said the inability to detect excess water under pressure at high temperature, a gearbox malfunction, and other design issues made by the contractor, caused or contributed to the explosion.

"These types of events are very rare in the Calpine fleet and are taken very seriously," the letter reads in part. "We commissioned an independent expert to analyze the root cause of the event and to provide recommended remedial actions to prevent it from ever happening again."

However, Calpine has applied for four applications for confidentiality, including one covering the root cause analysis. The company said if it were made public it could be useful to a person planning an attack on critical infrastructure or reveal trade secrets.

That means documents related to the incident would be kept secret from the public. A determination has not yet been made and is still under review.

Calpine said the root cause was not deferred maintenance or operator error, despite previous safety concerns.

These new details come as state regulators plan a thorough inspection and audit of the plant early next month.

During a business meeting of the California Energy Commission Wednesday, regulators said they promise to get the total picture of what happened and prevent another unforeseen blast.

"We were just appalled at the situation," Commissioner Patty Monahan said. "No lives were lost but they could have been. Insuring that we’re doing all we can to make communities safe as we provide power is a core value to all of us."

Following the May 2021 incident, Russell City Energy Center was shut down for several months. It restarted in a lower power mode to feed the grid during critical times of need late last summer.

The plant went idle in November and Calpine said it is undergoing steam turbine repairs to get everything fully operational as soon as this summer.

The company also said it has inspected its other, similar plants in its fleet to make sure they’re safe, while acknowledging community concerns.

The City of Hayward is seeking compensation for damages and wants better coordination with Calpine going forward.

City manager Kelly McAdoo said from now on Calpine will include the city on annual meetings to discuss operations and changes as well as notify the fire department of regular, emergency drills.

Regulators stressed the need for transparency and their intention to focus on the operations that set the stage for the explosion and fire to occur.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU