Power plant automation trends

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Due to power plant automation and the switch in many countries from coal power generation to gas power, the number of staff required to run a power plant is declining. In fact, in the future, it is likely that there will be no staff on site at all.

This is the case in the US, where some 27 coal-fired plants totalling 22 gigawatts (GW) of capacity closed during 2017. In contrast, the US power sector added some 11.2 GW in 2017 of gas power generating capacity and plans to 25.4 GW in 2018, based on information reported to EIA.

In the US we have seen a good deal of coal power plants close, with them have gone coal mining jobs and read related work opportunities for people.  However less noticed is due to the increasing amount of power plant automation, which has resulted in the number of highly skilled and paying jobs such as mechanics, millwrights and welders disappearing within the industry.

Such maintenance intensive coal-fired plants have been often replaced gas power generation plants that exploit the latest in technologies such as the Internet of things equipped sensors, predictive maintenance software, and automated control systems. As a result,  such gas fueled power plants only need a fraction of the staff that traditional power plants used.

Recent power plant automation announcements.

Here are a few examples of the impact automation is having on staffing levels in new power plants.

For instance, in August 2017, Michigan-based DTE Energy revealed plans to spend almost $1 billion to build a 1,100-megawatt gas-fired power plant near Detroit. Once the plant comes online in 2022, it will replace three existing coal power generation units that now employ some 500 people. At the new facility, will only 35 will need full-time staff, reports the DTE spokesperson.

In June 2017, the New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation was given the go-ahead by local regulators to build a 994-MW gas-fired combined cycle power plant. It slates this $872 million plant and associated transmission assets to enter service in 2020. Once it comes online, the operator expects only to recruit some 31 people to manage, run and maintain their new power plant.

What is clear from these announcements is that because of investment in automation and advances in control systems technology, which new gas-fired power plants need little in the way of staffing.

Entergy’s plant in Lake Charles, La

A new plant is to be built at Lake Charles in Louisiana by Entergy, it will use two Mitsubishi 501G air-cooled gas turbines coupled with a Toshiba steam turbine. It will have a single control room operator able to launch the plant’s entire start-up procedure with the push of a button. Once fully operational, this power plant’s automated systems are designed to check all aspects of the plant remotely, plus coördinate generator functions, set ramp unit production, monitor firing temperatures, measure and adjust air emissions,  all tasks that hitherto required human oversight or intervention. The owner of the new power plant W. Dale Claudel, vice president of power generation for Entergy, has said, “What changed is the evolution of technology”.

Power plant automation benchmarking results

In fact, a recent benchmarking effort by Black & Veatch a global leader in engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services for energy, water and telecommunications. It utilised data from a commercial database of North American gas-fired power generating plants to offer insight into how gas power plants are staffed.

Phillip L. Webster, P.E., associate vice president and project manager of Energy, Power Generation Services at Black & Veatch says, “That the firm’s research shows that a gas-fired combined-cycle power plant with a 565-MW generating capacity needs around 27 full-time staff. A plant configured to yield 300 MW more generating capacity requires only six more people.”

One thing is clear, due to power plant automation, their is a declining need for in-house and on-site maintenance staff is often no longer necessary. Since new gas-fired plants are equipped with a sensor net that provides a constant data stream, which is used to watch turbine performance and feed predictive maintenance algorithms. In fact, predictive maintenance means that maintenance outages can be scheduled well before an equipment failure, further reducing the need for standby maintenance staff.

It is clear from the Black & Veatch study that even though the scales of gas power generation units vary in size, it is no longer the case that staffing needs have to vary. This is partly the result of software that minimises the effort of the operations and maintenance team. In fact, the working reliability of an advanced gas turbine may approach 99%, and operating efficiencies are moving towards 65%. That is double the efficiency achieved by most coal fire units that are being replaced. In addition expenses for operations and maintenance, fuel and staff are being cut due to the latest in gas power plant technology.

In fact, the increasing use of automation and digital equipment in gas power plants, also means that operators will increasingly need to have a different set of skills since there will be less need for specialised rights and boiler operators. Since many of the traditional power plant functions are being replaced by people who understand operations as processes and who are able to program, troubleshoot and tune such turbines to maximise operational efficiency.

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