Coal, Gas

Retraining Critical in Deregulated Power Market

Issue 9 and Volume 109.

After more than a decade of deregulation in various segments of the electric power industry, many companies exist in limbo, somewhere between regulated and deregulated. Some are dealing with change better than others, says Robert Sansone, risk engineering leader of global energy for XL Insurance, providers of risk management solutions for industrial and commercial businesses.

“Some are seizing the opportunity to improve, adapt and succeed in a deregulated environment because they know how to manage change,” says Sansone, “while others struggle with the paradigm shift from their traditional operating and maintenance practices.”

Because of deregulation, it is not uncommon today for plants that were designed for one duty to be serving an entirely different mission. But it’s still people who have to operate the equipment, react to the alarms, maintain the equipment and decide when to start or stop a process. That’s why retraining is critical.

Many plants that were operated and maintained as baseload units under regulation now play a load following or peaking role. Operating and maintenance changes needed for such a plant to be economically dispatched in the deregulated world can be enormous. Maintenance protocols have to be re-thought because valves that would be operated sparingly in a baseload unit are actuated numerous times in a peaking operation. Baseload plant operators who rarely took a unit online or off-line must now be retrained to safely swing a unit, respond to upset or transient conditions and recognize problems that develop while a unit is changing load. An emphasis shift favoring run time with the possible neglect of maintenance adds to stress and morale problems as does concerns about job security.

Deregulation has spurred development of new materials for turbine blades and high temperature coatings that allow higher power outputs and operation in more corrosive environments. Operators need training on how these new materials come with a less forgiving margin for failure. Transients above normal settings or introduction of non-spec fuel can destroy new materials very quickly.

In addition, aftermarket support has become a vibrant part of the revenue stream for OEMs along with long-term service agreements, spares pools, and other business arrangements. Operators must stay ahead of the technology curve so they know which companies can be trusted for quality aftermarket support, and which firms merely provide knock-off parts and service. Owners must also learn to negotiate service agreements. They must decide whether to own-operate or contract for operating services. They must know which third-party operators are best suited for their operating profile and which third-party aftermarket design and part solutions are viable.

“Of all of the factors determining a plant’s operation, the human element is the single greatest opportunity for success or the root cause for problems we see in power plants today,” says Sansone. The human element – and its ability to positively (or adversely) affect operations – encompasses a number of parameters including leadership, communications, training, procedures, experience/expertise, clearly defined goals, and maintenance.

“All too often, operators and maintenance personnel are engaged as merely the arms and legs of the operation, and one can safely assume that they have been effectively disconnected from the ownership and pride issues that make them operate with their hearts and minds,” he says. He recommends spending a little time each day one-on-one asking individuals what could be done to make a better operation for them and for shareholders.

Training can be conducted on-site, at a trainer’s facility or online. Many training service providers have designed programs in preventative and corrective maintenance with both classroom and hands-on lessons. Turbine manufacturers offer training programs to help their customers maximize the life of their systems.

Insurance providers – some with in-house risk engineering or loss control staff – often work with customers to assure that appropriate training programs and maintenance procedures are in place to help minimize potential losses that could arise from a mechanical breakdown. An insurance company may also request to see company maintenance protocol and training records prior to underwriting a facility’s property insurance coverage.

Insurance firms may look for:

  • Formal training programs including refresher training and competence testing;
  • Emergency training using process simulators;
  • Formal operator certification by position;
  • Safe work practices covering bypass, lock out/tag out, shift handover, fire equipment impairment procedures;
  • Full written procedures available to all plant personnel covering all operating and emergency operating modes;
  • Up-to-date safety manual covering safety, health, environment, PSM, OSHA, COSHH, etc.

Outsourced training providers may also help by offering to track their customer’s employee training and provide easy online access to these records when needed.

Post de-regulation operating and maintenance practices need to be benchmarked against best practice. “It is no longer sufficient to gauge one’s performance against internal assets,” Sansone says. “Best practice does not necessarily come from the power industry only or the OEMs that serve it. For example, one may find the key to optimizing gas turbine availability and reliability in solutions created by non-traditional OEM firms affecting maintenance or repair solutions.”

As an example, Sansone cites a recently patented solution created by a firm known more for its leading edge products and services for the defense, intelligence and commercial sector rather than for the power industry. The firm has created an elegant design solution that successfully solves a specific problem encountered in securing and locking blades and shims in the compressor section of specific gas turbines. And does it very cost-effectively.