By thoroughly planning their outage strategies well in advance, Southern Company personnel are better able to achieve a number of important objectives, including improving unit economic performance, reducing unplanned maintenance outage hours, completing outages on time and within budget, and ensuring that outage workmanship is of the highest quality.
Southern Company owns and/or operates more than 280 generating units at more than 70 power plants in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. They account for a combined capacity of more than 42,000 MW. The company’s energy sources are 58% coal, 25% natural gas, 15% nuclear, and 2% hydroelectric.
“The long-term success of Southern Company, the ability to safely provide reliable, low-cost energy to our customers, and the preservation of our assets depends on proper outage planning and execution,” Kim Flowers, vice president of Technical Services at Southern Company, told POWER in January. She emphasized that every member of the Southern Company fossil-hydro generation organization understands the importance of the company’s outage approach.
Outage Planning and Management Model
Southern Company’s generating plants, regional management teams, and Technical Services organization all have important roles to play in outage planning and maintenance, Flowers explained (Figure 1):
|1. Working together. In Southern Company’s outage planning and management model, the Technical Services group is responsible for consistency and best practices. Plants are accountable for budgets and performance, while regions (shown in blue) are responsible for outage planning and execution, contracting, and regional system owners. Source: Southern Company|
- The generating plants are accountable for outage budgets, cost management, and asset performance.
- Within each of five regions, a regional planning manager is responsible for outage planning, execution, and contracting strategy. These regional teams work together to ensure maintenance strategies are developed and executed consistently in plants across each region and the fleet.
- The Technical Services organization governs consistency, provides technical expertise, and defines best practices for outage management.
“Our outage philosophy is customized to unit size rather than the individual plant, and is driven primarily by pressure rating and type of outage work to be performed,” Flowers said. “Plant management, regional planning managers, and Technical Services employees meet monthly to discuss tactical and strategic outage management opportunities.”
Southern Company employs an outage management model that consists of two main elements: management control (before, during, and after the outage) and a five-step process for identifying, planning, scheduling, executing, and closing out work:
- Identify outage work using all available tools. This includes, but is not limited to, using condition-based maintenance data, operator data, past outage reports, and subject matter experts.
- Plan all work to a level of detail that limits the nonproductive time of craft employees.
- Schedule contract and plant work into an integrated construction project management schedule to optimize contractor and plant resources.
- Execute the work in a manner that allows for quick adjustments in the work flow to ensure schedule and budget compliance is maintained.
- Close out and fully document the outage, including all relevant information regarding the outage process and recommendations for future outages.
Benefits of a Regional Maintenance Approach
Currently, Southern Company’s regional maintenance program is focusing on the following four key areas to optimize performance at a reduced cost:
- Component benchmarking.
- Contracting philosophy and volume procurement.
- Outage planning and execution.
- The “living maintenance” program, a multi-step process used by the outage team. First the team puts together a maintenance strategy, which requires identifying the outage work to be carried out and planning how the work will be performed. Then the team supervises the actual execution of the work. Finally, the team reviews the completed outage work for lessons learned that can be used in planning future outages.
Flowers said that “the regional maintenance approach has been instrumental in optimizing the operations and maintenance of Southern Company’s assets.” This approach provides a structured way to effectively ensure consistent application of cost containment and process improvement best practices across the fleet. This strategy has resulted in a reduction of planned outage days, improved contractor productivity, and increased reliability.
For example, for contracting and procurement purposes, the regional approach allows the Southern Company fleet to leverage its buying power and size. “In past years, the cost of equipment and labor differed from location to location, even with the same vendors providing services at several locations,” Flowers said. “At times, however, the work performed was consistent, but the price of labor and equipment were not.” By pooling their efforts, Southern Company’s regional negotiators have achieved more consistent pricing and contract execution.
Likewise, savings have been realized for the procurement of large pieces of equipment through volume procurement contracts. Better upfront project identification and planning through the regional structure have enabled such success.
“Effective outage planning is the most cost-effective way to run our business,” Flowers said. “A well-managed planned outage ensures that we are able to operate our units in such a manner as to be able to satisfy customer demand when needed, be reliable when in service, and optimize costs to achieve reliability targets.”
As a result of its consistently exceptional reliability performance, Southern Company is able to leverage both unit availability and reliability to economically commit and dispatch its fleet, which ultimately translates into lower costs to its customers and more market sales opportunities for the company.
An Environmental Edge
Southern Company’s outage planning and management process has been instrumental in the successful construction, maintenance, and operation of its environmental control equipment, Flowers said. The company’s outage management process fosters the correct maintenance at optimal frequency to reduce equipment down time, which enables its fleet to meet or exceed all environmental regulations.
The company has invested $8.1 billion in environmental controls since 1990, and management plans to invest at least an additional $1.2 billion through 2013 to further reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. This significant investment has almost doubled the amount of equipment that the company’s fossil plants must maintain in order to comply with environmental regulations.
Flowers emphasized that “certainly, the traditional power plant that we are all familiar with is changing.” Southern Company expects that the amount and complexity of equipment its fossil plants must maintain and operate in order to comply with changing environmental regulations will increase in the future.
“However, by leveraging our outage philosophy and regional maintenance approach, and building on our employees’ commitment to superior performance, we believe the Southern Company generating fleet will continue to safely provide highly reliable and affordable energy for our customers,” Flowers said.
— Angela Neville, JD, is POWER’s senior editor.