By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor
Danny Morton, Central Cluster Manager for Southern Company, and Rick Deese, general manager of technical services for Duke Energy, agree about both the biggest hurdles and greatest assets in plant operations and maintenance (O&M), as if they’ve been molded by the same coach.
In a way, they have-that “coach” being the daily routine of power plant operations.
Morton chose the delicate balance of profit vs. maintenance as the largest problem he encounters daily.
“Just continuing to provide reliable low cost energy with aging equipment, additional environmental controls and limited budgets is the main issue,” he told EL&P.
He stressed the problems associated with additional environmental controls in particular. “Many of us [coal-fired plants] have been adding environmental control equipment over the years, almost on a continual basis. When you try to retrofit those into a plant that was built without them, it provides additional O&M challenges, particularly in the areas of decreasing reliability, decreasing efficiency or increasing cost,” he stated.
Morton said that some headway had been made in the area, particularly with vendor response to difficulties environmental equipment has created. As an example, Morton spoke of the early 1990s when Southern began to put low NOx burner systems on many of their coal-fired units. They began to notice an increase in LOI (lost on ignition), and passed that information on to vendors who responded with technology that would grind the coal to a finer consistency, thereby offsetting that increase in combustibles.
“They try to respond with either developing new technologies or refining the existing ones,” Morton stated, emphasizing that communication is key to solving O&M issues. “Obviously, the vendors have to be in close contact with plants to understand what the daily O&M issues are,” he added.
Deese also sees equipment issues as one of the hurdles in the O&M arena, but from the perspective of banging around inside them, understanding them.
“We have such a large fleet of generating units now-both gas and coal-we want to be able to cross-apply any lesson that we learn from a particular piece of equipment at one plant to all the plants throughout the system,” Deese stated in an interview with EL&P. “We don’t want to have to re-learn that lesson at another plant,” he added.
Deese pointed out that a lot of Duke’s plants have similar equipment, making the concept of educated cross-applications a good one, if it can be maintained.
“You’ve got to build that attitude into your workforce,” he said. “It’s like a daily vigil.”
Deese stated that Duke is trying to better document procedures for doing work on their equipment as a possible solution, hammering out their own versions of shop manuals or purchasing one from vendors when possible.
Deese also stated that finding skilled labor to do both the in-company O&M and the outside contracting that Duke does is becoming an issue. He blamed high demand for the difficulty.
“There’s a couple of ways to solve the workforce problem as well,” he concluded. “We’re working with technical schools to offer assistance in their programs, to encourage people to go into the welding area or the powerhouse mechanic trade.”
Supply and demand could also solve the workforce problem, according to Deese. With the increased demand, wages tends to go up, creating more interest in the field. Deese said he sees that happening today in the O&M arena.
“I know it’s a clichàƒ©, but our people are our greatest asset,” Morton said.
“There is no substitute for experience. A power plant is a complicated environment, and, in many cases, a lot of what you need to know takes years to learn, whether you’re a technician, an operator, a mechanic, an electrician.”
Deese agrees, separately and independently giving credit to “our people” as well.
“Our control operators and our equipment operators, they’re the eyes and ears of our plant,” he stated. Giving the analogy that a car owner can sense when the car’s running rough, Deese attributed these skills to his plant O&M workforce.
“Every day they go out and touch the equipment. They’re around it, and when it sounds like it’s just not right or something has changed, then they make note of that. And we can catch a lot of problems in infancy and solve them with a lot less time and cost.”
Morton came across Deese’s “aging workforce” issue when discussing the positive aspects of their employees. Both are concerned about how retirement will affect O&M.
The wisdom EL&P asked both Morton and Deese to pass on three nuggets of wisdom to a novice plant manager.
Morton would first ask a novice manager to keep safety as his first priority. “That has to be number one in the plant manager’s mind because your people are your greatest asset and you want to protect them,” he said.
Morton also said that a newbie manager should never forget the business he’s in-the business of producing electricity reliably. Finally, he asked that a new manager remember to always recognize his people. Concern for employees was also high on Deese’s list. He believes that a plant manger should first make sure he has good people, people with what he calls a “self-improvement culture.”
“In other words, you want to create a culture where you share lessons and mistakes and learn from them,” he stated.
Secondly, those folks need adequate training and retraining, according to Deese. Finally, find a way to capture the knowledge of the aging workforce before they walk out of your plant.
“The good thing is with an aging workforce you have a lot of people with skills and experience. The bad part is that at some point there will be a big wave of folks-like the Baby Boomers-who could leave a large gap in your workforce if you aren’t prepared,” he added.
Morton suspects that remaining competitive will become more challenging for coal-fired plants over the next five years, mainly because of all the combined cycle units that are being built in the U.S. Combined cycles are very efficient, Morton pointed out, and with competitive natural gas prices, coal-fired units are going to have to be “more creative” to survive.
“Some of the older plants that are less efficient and have higher heat rates may very well be coming to the end of their lives. That is going to be one of the harsher realities,” he stated.
Both Morton and Deese see the future of plant O&M centering around predictive and preventative maintenance. Deese stated that margins for profit are reducing and more efficient plant maintenance will be key. Oil analysis, vibration analysis and motor signature current analysis are among the types of methods to employ to move from reactive to predictive maintenance.
“The more proactive maintenance that you can do and the less reactive maintenance, the better off you’re going to be,” Morton pointed out. “Essentially, what you want to do is plan all of your outages and not have any unplanned outages [due to maintenance]. We’d like to be able to plan 95 percent of maintenance.”
Deese also sees reliance on failure risk analysis that’s supported by a lot of non destructive testing. He spoke of a new development by Duke’s engineering and services subsidiary that they were putting into practice on the plant floor. The new procedure uses a thermography camera that follows very closely behind an intense light, which measures the thickness of the tubes in their boilers. Before they had to use either an ultrasonic technique or a radiographic technique to do that, which could take more than a week. According to Deese, the thermography technique requires about two and a half days, making it a much faster process.
“We get less down time from that, and we get a lot better coverage,” he stated, tying it to the need for predictive maintenance in the near future of plant O&M. New technologies could prove very fruitful in this arena, and be a future cost savings as well-should it prevent an unplanned outage.
“A lot of people have tried just to cut money out of the budget to save money, and we view that as being very short-sighted,” Deese concluded.
Morton serves as manager of the Georgia Power Company Central Cluster plants: Plant Scherer, Plant Arkwright, Plant Branch, Plant Dahlberg and Warner Robins CTs. For more information, contact Southern Company representative Mike Tyndall via e-mail at MLTYNDAL@southernco.com.
Deese provides technical support for Duke Energy’s coal- and gas-fired plants. You can contact him directly at RJDeese@duke-energy.com.