Navigating the Future of Plant Operations: Fly, Don’t Drive

By Rosco Backus, Versify Solutions

Not only is this not your father’s Oldsmobile…we’re not driving anymore.

For nearly 30 years I worked at power plants for one of the world’s largest electric utilities and merchant generators, running assets across multiple ISOs for everything from coal-fired power plants, to gas plants, to solar and wind farms.

Let me say, times are different. I believe our industry is at a tipping point in why and how we use emerging analytics tools to run power plants as part of a larger business.

Where Are we Going?

Power generators have a growing mandate to increase the reliability and performance of their fleet, reduce spending and increase revenues and margins. In the old energy era, things were predictable, centralized and all about compartmentalized control of assets and information to ensure the reliable flow of electrons, without too much regard for other external factors.

The new energy era will be dynamic, distributed and all about variable assets and integrated information flows to manage and deliver not only electrons from all sorts of energy sources, but also a host of energy-related products and services, and with a much keener eye towards accountability, both operational and financial.

As a result, plant operations will be fundamentally different as well – it’s no longer just about generation, trading or compliance-it’s about all of these things, working together. There are positive and compelling business reasons to look for ways to improve plant operations in the new energy era: deliver new forms of energy to market, outpace the competition and drive higher margins. And there are “negative” reasons as well: minimize outages, ensure compliance, reduce risk and avoid market and regulatory penalties.

In both cases, there is the same imperative: plant operators who have been doing the same things for the last 40-plus years-driving the same car if you will-are on the cusp of finding new ways to ‘get there.’

… And how did we get here?

Power plant operations are not just a discipline or a function, they’re a phenomenon with thousands of moving parts and equipment, as well as an entire network of people and processes, working together. In the regulated world, it’s about “operational efficiency” and being a good steward of ratepayer-funded assets. In the non-regulated world of merchant generators, effective plant operations is all about matching output with demand, at the highest price, in real time.

And like your father’s Oldsmobile, there has always been the constant need to check things-temperature, fluids, pressure, water levels and emissions. There probably are hundreds of gauges on that dashboard. To do their job well going forward, the “drivers’-control room operators, dispatchers and systems operators-will need new tools to be more actively engaged than their predecessors, even as a large percentage of such workers retire within the next five years (more on that in a moment).

With the increasing growth of renewables, this phenomenon of disparate moving parts will only get more complex. When driving your car before, if you tap the brake and it pulls to the right so you know you’ve got a problem. Maybe it’s a tire, the alignment or a tie rod-very solvable. Today, we’ve got something more akin to the Jetsons, where part of your vehicle looks like the car you know, but then another part is something very new and different-like wings on an aircraft! This may sound cool, but it’s also much harder to troubleshoot and maintain.

Why the Differences Today Will Require Changes Tomorrow

Even as the definition of a “power plant” is changing, plant operators will have to change how they manage their assets, not only to generate reliable power but also to meet emerging requirements driven by policy and the market. They cannot do this without access to more and better information, faster. And yet most plants today carry the burden of legacy everything:

“- Legacy systems with too many screens and too many information silos

“- Legacy processes, as in “we’ve been doing it this way for 40 years”

“- Legacy people, a good thing in most ways except that an aging workforce will soon limit access to expertise

When it comes to gathering information, however, manual processing simply will not work, especially as data collection, analysis and reporting times shrink from hours to minutes. Tomorrow’s operators must identify problems before they happen to avoid severe consequences such as penalties, blackouts and customer wrath.

Consider one power plant where I worked, with over 1,300 MW spread out over 500 acres. Even then, we had thousands of key performance indicators. Today that plant is part of a portfolio with coal, solar, wind, combined-cycle and simple-cycle gas plants, all working together and balancing each other out. This updated plant, as well as the entire portfolio, calls for an updated approach to plant operations. This means checking more stuff, more often and more accurately.

Yet now as before, engineers go back and forth on the job, they enter their reports and the status of those assets, often on a paper report with no real digital log or trending system to prevent errors. To keep pushing our vehicle analogy and comparing yesterday to today, it’s the difference between jury-rigging the timing on your car and knowing that if you are a little sloppy, it’ll still run, versus ignoring the engine warning light on your main rocket booster as you get ready to launch … um, bad idea.

As one vice president of commercial ops tells me, “For 95 percent of utilities, people in the plants are so disconnected from the business” that they cannot track key metrics to business impacts: things like turbine outages, capacity factors, curtailments and operating reserves. The stakes for plant operators are much higher in today’s environment than they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. The mantra, “Be safe, do what we tell you and everything will be fine,” is giving way to “You must run it like a business…avoid catastrophes and make money too.”

Coincidental with this new imperative are all the old problems and some new ones: an aging workforce, distributed energy, dynamic markets, ever increasing regulations and the shift to being more customer-focused and accountable. Furthermore, as power providers age out in their workforce, they also are trying to do more with less. I estimate that for many critical plant operations functions, there is up to 60 percent less staff than there was in the 1970s, doing more work for longer hours. Something has to give.

Calling all Drivers

Plant operators are migrating from being drivers to being flyers, and pilots, too. Utilities will need new and more technology to deal with the changes quickly moving towards them-that means standing still is not an option. It’s also important to note that your technology choices and the choice to “go digital” in your plant operations will not only determine how efficient and effective you can become, it will also contribute to attracting and retaining the right talent.

Consider these examples: I walk in a restaurant today and the waiter uploads my order from a handheld. In the 1990s, overnight delivery drivers were using palm-sized computers to synch orders and deliveries. My 14-year old manages her entire schedule, does homework and communicates halfway across the world, all from her smart phone. Mobility, cloud and wireless, all at scale-that’s the world we live in, right? But in the last six months, I’ve been to more than a half-dozen large, well-known utilities, where paper-based “processing” still prevails. Utilities can catch up, as technology advancements and the next-generation work force go hand in hand.

Stop Driving, Start Flying

Most power plants are still reactive. For example, one plant I saw in my travels needed a boiler feed pump, which cost the operation about $10,000 per hour when down. By luck, one guy heard about the problem, told another guy, who just happened to know that the missing part was sitting in a nearby warehouse (they were getting ready to place a very expensive overnight order). The digital-age answer to this challenge is pretty simple: put barcodes on all equipment, log the data and automate the inventory management for all the plant’s moving parts. I call it “digital common sense.” In other words, why drive when you can fly?

Another recent case comes to mind: In another plant I toured, the operations manager was scheduling outages with the asset manager on the commercial side, where different individuals were trying to figure out and interact with markets. The operator was planning on taking a piece of equipment offline for one full day, which would make generation 100 MW short in the day-ahead market. The message was clear: “don’t bid us into the market for this power.” So now the traders knew. Then, 3 hours after market closed the maintenance manager called and said that expected part-a feed pump-was not going to make it any time soon.

Now the 24-hour contract that required the trader to buy 100 MW in the market to bring the position up needed to be extended so that the utility could avoid a potentially very costly exposure to the real-time market and/or penalties. In this case, the utility has integrated analytics tools and a platform that can deliver a real-time, auto-updated, single source of truth to enable the operations manager, asset manager, traders and the maintenance manager to work together to solve the problem. And management can track it too. That is flying vs. driving in the digital age for utilities.

Getting Ready to Fly

As we reflect on the power industry of the future, it’s time to lift our eyes and answer the question, “When it comes to data collection, information analysis and situational awareness, is there a better way?”

Related to that question, here’s digital-age, plant operator “pilot checklist” of things plant operators should know and/or do:

1. Understand going digital is mandatory

2. Recognize things are different-your markets, your talent (less people) and your risk profile-making situational awareness harder than ever.

3. Develop more and better cross-function communication-materials handling, maintenance and the control room cannot operate alone.

4. Build or buy information and communications management systems to deliver automation at scale for transparency, transparency…and more transparency.

A “features and functionality” menu (below) lists what new digital-age tools should do to help address these new realities. The right functionality in high-performance plant ops systems would mean you could do things like:

“- Consolidate information across system types to avoid costly integration

“- Standardize and automate data collection, work flows and reporting

“- Rank and prioritize dispatch based on real-time market dynamics

“- Codify time-consuming manual work into automated processes

“- Communicate outward to optimize assets in conjunction with other parties

“- Manage assets and events in real time while remaining compliant

As for me, I like to fly!


For over 26 years, Rosco Backus worked at or for major U.S. utilities, including Duke Energy, where he managed a diverse portfolio of generation assets. Today, Rosco works at Versify Solutions, a platform provider of integrated analytics software to power generators. Reach him at Rosco at

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