LEWISTON - The Niagara Power Project keeps churning out hydroelectric power with its newly installed turbines, just as it has for the past 56 years.
The state's hydropower supports some 400,000 jobs, New York Power Authority President and CEO Gil C. Quiniones said at the plant Thursday. Many of the jobs are in new, high-tech fields not even dreamed of when the plant opened in 1961.
But the $460 million upgrade -- which started more than four years ago and now is half completed -- shows another way the American economy has changed in the past half-century.
The original turbines, each containing about 68 tons of stainless steel, were made in the United States. Their replacements are imported.
The custom-made turbines were hand-cast in Slovenia, said Peter Ludewig, NYPA director of hydroengineering.
"They're not made in the United States at any price," Ludewig said. "This is handmade, not made by the foundries in the U.S."
Other foundry work on the turbines and related parts was done in Austria and Japan, and the fabrication work - welding and machining - was done in Japan, Ludewig said. The design for the replacement turbines also was created in Japan.
"At any point, we have a dozen or so NYPA engineers abroad at those factories to watch how they make this, because we want to make sure they meet our standards and specs," Quiniones said. "It's really global sourcing."
"We have no choice in the matter. It's not made here," Ludewig said. There are a couple of American companies that could have done the fabrication work, but the contracts all were competitively bid and the winners were in Japan.
"We do a lot of upfront work to make sure it will last for 50 years," Quiniones said.
To prevent water leaks and maintain the plant's efficiency, the giant turbines, 15 feet in diameter and nine feet tall, are machined to extremely small tolerances, Ludewig said. The steel in the new turbines is stronger than the originals, he added.
The old turbines are being scrapped, NYPA spokeswoman Maura Balaban said. The steel in each of the original turbines will bring $20,000 to $30,000 at a scrapyard.
Thursday, authority officials joined Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster for a news conference marking the halfway point of the "life extension and modernization program" at the Lewiston Pump Generating Plant, with the seventh new turbine as a backdrop.
It arrived in January, and work on dismantling the seventh original turbine started Monday, said Anthony J. Dell'Isola, resident construction manager. It takes about eight months to dismantle and replace a turbine.
About 50 Power Project workers, members of Local 2104, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are part of the upgrade project. Shifts will run 24 hours a day for about 12 weeks during the most intense part of the project, which will begin in about three weeks, Dell'Isola said.
Local contractors on the project include Ferguson Electric Construction Co. and Niagara Coating Services.
"The work that's being done has an incredible ripple effect across our local economy," Hochul said.
Quiniones said $390 million has been spent on improvements at the Niagara Power Project over the past six years.
In 2013, the Power Authority announced it would overhaul one turbine at a time, with each upgrade taking about eight months.
The pumps in Lewiston serve a dual purpose. During low-demand periods, they pump water into the power project's 1,900-acre reservoir, but during high-demand periods, they become generators and use that same water to generate electricity.
The other main portion of the Power Project, the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, has 13 hydroelectric turbines, also driven by water that comes from the upper Niagara River through conduits that run beneath the City of Niagara Falls. A $300 million modernization project at the Moses plant was completed in 2006.
The Niagara Power Project, with a capacity of 2.4 million kilowatts, is the largest power generator in New York State.