Alliant Energy sweeps EUCG Best Performer awards

The EUCG (formerly Electric Utility Cost Group) annual Best Performer awards were presented at the group’s fall 2007 meeting in Denver, where Alliant Energy swept the top awards. The three-unit, 328-MW Lansing Generating Station (Figure 1) was named Best Performer Small Coal (<250 MW average unit size), and the three-unit, 803-MW Edgewater Generating Station (Figure 2) was selected as Best Performer Large Coal (>250 MW average unit size). Alliant Energy’s M.L. Kapp Generating Station took second place in the Small Coal division. Approximately 80 coal-fired generating stations from across the U.S. were benchmarked for the EUCG’s annual awards program.

1. Best of the small. Alliant Energy’s Lansing Generating Station won the EUCG’s Best Performer award in the small coal category at the group’s fall meeting. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

  2. Best of the large. Alliant Energy’s Edgewater Generating Station was named the EUCG’s Best Performer in the large coal category. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

To be fair, Lower Colorado River Authority’s Fayette Power Plant finished in a tie with Edgewater, but because Fayette’s NOx reduction program was profiled in the May/June 2007 issue of our sister publication, COAL POWER (www.coalpowermag.com), we’re focusing on Alliant Energy’s corporate- and plant-level approach to managing its aging coal plant assets to achieve such outstanding results.

POWER has been privileged to publish findings from a number of EUCG-conducted benchmarking studies over the past several years; the latest findings are from the group’s most recent plant maintenance staffing study. But this is the first time POWER has taken the opportunity to examine the EUCG’s Best Performer selection criteria (see sidebar) and then discuss with each winning plant’s staff the key indicators they believe differentiate them from their peers.

Change agent

Alliant Energy serves about a million electric customers in a territory that covers the very southern portion of Minnesota, much of Iowa, and portions of Wisconsin. The company has 860 employees in the Generation Group working at 14 baseload plants; two new baseload plants are moving through the permitting process.

Significant management changes occurred in the Generation Group about 10 years ago when Tim Bennington, VP generation, began the slow process of redirecting the organization from a utility-centric to a business-centric one in which modern business practices were made a requirement rather than a goal. Bennington named this program Generation Excellence.

Not all of the “old school” plant managers were able to make the transition. In fact, all of the plant managers were eventually replaced with a new cadre of highly motivated, plant-savvy folks with good business acumen and excellent leadership skills. Many in the current corps of plant managers were recruited from outside the Alliant Energy organization from a diverse group of industries, typically manufacturing. After all, a power plant is really a complex manufacturing facility for electricity, and the required management skill sets for the two industries are similar. Today, over 80% of salaried personnel in the Generation Group have a college degree; 100% is the long-term goal.

Change doesn’t happen unless employees clearly understand why the new direction is necessary and what’s in it for them. The Generation Excellence program is distinguished by its focus on industry-leading performance and an empowered workforce. Bennington summarizes Generation Excellence as a constant commitment to daily operational excellence as characterized by six specific ingredients.

Employee safety. Zero accidents is the goal of every power plant, and Alliant Energy is no different. But what Alliant does differently is specifically track and document safety inspections and suggestions, and record near-misses so those events can be included in future safety lessons along with lessons learned from recordables and lost-time accidents. Housekeeping and safety audits have become part of the plant culture rather than optional.

Fiscal and operational excellence. According to Bennington, “fiscal execution is a key requirement for professional success.” That means a plant manager at Alliant must have the skills of both an engineer and a financier. Yes, generation results such as heat rate, forced outage rates, and plant availability remain extremely important to Alliant, as they have been for all plants since Edison commissioned the first U.S. central power plant in 1882. But O&M and capital budget management is now equally important to achieving plant generation goals. A good plant manager must also adopt best practices identified by industry benchmarking and use quality tools such as Six Sigma and lean management practices. The new generation of plant manager must be multidisciplined rather than purely a technical expert.

“We know from benchmarking that our generating stations are top performers when it comes to managing costs and operating reliably,” said Ken Wilmot, regional director-generation. “Operating efficiently by controlling costs on behalf of our customers is central to our core values. Our employees continually look for ways to manage costs while maintaining our high reliability and safety standards.”

Environmental stewardship. Any significant environmental mistake today will reverberate all the way to the board room and can attract considerable scrutiny from regulators and the press, whether or not a violation was intentional. Generation Excellence implemented a system of environmental peer reviews and audits to ensure regulatory compliance and anticipate potential problems. A proactive approach to environmental issues was also introduced that includes the beneficial use of ash to minimize landfill usage and use of advanced NOx reduction technologies such as SmartBurn (www.smartburn.com).

Performance goals tied to stakeholder value. Individual plant operation goals are now directly linked with monitored operational and commercial availability, O&M costs, the efficiency of capital investments, Six Sigma savings, any environmental violations, and the severity and rate of safety violations.

Improved asset performance monitoring. A plant manager can’t manage what he can’t monitor. Accurate and timely data is a key feature of an organization striving to operate using lean management principles. Significant investment has been made to improve standard work practices by using Maximo at all of Alliant Energy’s plants for managing preventive and predictive maintenance programs and hours tracking, and by using EtaPRO and Thermal Engineering software tools for thermal performance monitoring. Alliant’s generating fleet is also migrating to Maximo 6.2, the new browser-based upgrade that will link the maintenance management system more closely to the company’s enterprise resource management system.

Workforce planning and engagement. Alliant Energy, like so many other companies in this industry, is addressing the effects of an aging workforce on plant operations with a series of recruiting and retention programs. The brunt of the impact on Alliant began last year and is expected to extend through 2011, when the largest projected turnover in the company’s history will occur. Alliant has the typical recruitment processes in place for technical staff and skilled craft labor but has also focused on hiring skilled management staff from outside the utility industry—an unusual approach in what is typically thought of as a very insular industry. The plant staff is also more engaged with daily and weekly planning meetings, during which improvements in operating processes are explored and best practices are shared among plants.

Lansing—big on performance

When one plant wins a performance award multiple times, it reflects well on plant management and staff (Figure 3). When multiple plants from the same company win the same EUCG annual Best Performer Small Coal award four years running, it not only reflects well on the winning plants but also on the entire corporation.

3. The power of teamwork. The staff of the Lansing Generating Station. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

Lansing Generating Station, located south of the Minnesota border in Iowa, is the fourth in a succession of Alliant Energy Iowa plants to take top honors in the small plant category. In 2006, Alliant Energy’s Sixth Street Generating station in Cedar Rapids took the title. In 2005, the award went to Alliant’s Dubuque Generating Station. The M.L. Kapp Generating Station in Clinton started the winning streak in 2004.

A staff of 51 is responsible for operation and maintenance of the three-unit Lansing Generating Station. Unit 2, commissioned in 1948, is a 15-MW unit. Unit 3, added in 1954, is a 38-MW unit, and the 275-MW Unit 4 was commissioned in 1977. Unit 1 was retired in 2004. Units 2 and 3 boilers and Units 2 and 3 turbines are on a common 850-psi header, allowing operation of boilers and turbines in any combination.

Units 3 and 4 run continuously throughout the year, so the statistics presented to the EUCG came from those units. Unit 2, with boilers 1 and 2, is usually run only during peak periods in the summer months. Unit 4 burns approximately 2,800 tons of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal each day, while Unit 3 burns a blend of high-Btu and PRB coals. Ingram Barge Co. makes about four barge deliveries of coal to Lansing daily while the Mississippi River is open, and each barge carries approximately 1,500 tons of fuel. Fuel deliveries are highly seasonal: PRB coal is brought by train to southeastern Iowa and then barged to the plant, usually between April 1 and November 1. The river freezes over during the winter months, so all deliveries have to be planned well in advance.

Lansing, coal-constrained during the winter, also operates in a transmission-congested region of Iowa. Unit 3 is typically operated in baseload mode, and Unit 4 operates on automatic generation control and is baseloaded daily, typically from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when demand drops to about 140 MW, every day of the week.

Marty Burkhardt, Lansing’s operations manager, provided some insight into his plant’s excellent operations and safety record. He is especially proud of the plant’s strong safety committee that continually communicates with every staff member the importance of a safe working environment. The results speak volumes: the plant recently completed one million man-hours without a lost-time accident. For the small staff at Lansing, that record started in February 1999 and continues today.

Proud staff. Burkhardt also noted that all members of the plant staff have deep pride in their jobs and are dedicated to securing the plant’s future success. The plant is located in a remote, rural area of the state and is a mainstay in the community. (See sidebar.)

Location hasn’t protected the plant from the challenges of an aging workforce; a large number of staff members are eligible to retire in the next five years. The plant, with the strong support of the IBEW local, has invested in an active apprenticeship program that will maintain a well-trained workforce.

Empowered staff. The plant has very strong leaders within the hourly ranks who are involved in all significant plant initiatives. For example, most new craft and operations employees are local residents who are hired after a rigorous assessment of their skills, knowledge, and abilities. When more-senior positions are being filled, hourly and bargaining unit employees serve as members of the hiring committee to ensure that new employees not only have the requisite skills but also fit the plant culture (Figure 6).

6. Culture of success. Stan Schwartzhoff at the controls of Lansing Generating Station. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

Employees are also involved in determining how limited capital and O&M dollars are invested in their plant to support plant reliability goals. Who better to determine the timing of these expenditures than those who have to grapple with problems every day?

The operations organization is empowered as few other plant staffs are. The plant has no shift supervisors and no first-line supervisors for technicians or maintenance workers. Of the 50-plus staff members, only six are salaried. Certainly, the small staff makes this option more attractive, but there is a wide gap between the concept of an empowered workforce and actually fitting together a jigsaw puzzle of people with different technical skills, personalities, and self-motivation. Lansing has successfully solved this puzzle for the past five years.

Active communication among staff members continues to be seen as essential for a smoothly operating plant. Every day begins with a coordination meeting involving the chief plant operator, maintenance foreman, and coal yard foreman, who plan the day’s events. Minor outages are supported by plant staff, although boiler welds require contractor support.

The predictive maintenance program is a shared responsibility between the operations and maintenance staffs. The program’s scope is typical for most plants: predictive, vibration trending, thermography, lube oil analysis, and the like. The plant engineer receives the data and makes an evaluation that is fed back to the maintenance planner, who schedules repairs. The plant also has a full-time water chemistry technician to keep an eye on the plant’s working fluids; that person’s collateral duties include preparing the inevitable list of environmental reports for the plant manager’s signature.

Edgewater’s edge: A finely tuned staff

The Edgewater Generating Station, located in Sheboygan, Wis., has much in common with the Lansing plant: both began service with now-retired units in the 1940s and both have baseload units that are dispatched to serve areas with constrained transmission access. Both have also benefited greatly from the Generation Excellence program, as evidenced by their top-place EUCG ranking, which is all the more impressive because the competition included a number of other very well run plants.

Edgewater operates three coal-fired units today. Unit 3 is a 78-MW cyclone unit built in the early 1950s. Unit 4 is a 330-MW cyclone unit that went commercial in 1969, followed by the 395-MW pulverized coal Unit 5 that entered service in 1985. All three units use a common, centralized control room. Control systems are continuously upgraded by the plant staff, which also handled the Unit 3 and 4 DCS conversion. All three units also now burn PRB coal. All are equipped with secondary overfire air modifications by RMT (www.rmtinc.com), originally developed through Alliant Energy’s Combustion Initiative Program to reduce NOx.

Alliant has made the economic decision to operate all three units continuously, and it takes the MISO-offered system power price at minimum load during off-peak hours rather than cycle the units every night. Unit 5 was originally designed as a peaking plant with a minimum load of around 50 MW, which is often reached at night. The decision whether or not to cycle units over the weekend is dependent on MISO marginal pricing. However, because the units serve a transmission-constrained region of Wisconsin, the plant typically provides baseload power and is constrained only by periodic coal delivery disruptions during the summer.

Patrick Hartley, Edgewater’s plant manager, identified his highly motivated work force as the secret of the plant’s success. Edgewater relies heavily on a cadre of highly skilled, experienced hourly foremen and technicians in the craft group (Figure 7). Plant operations is organized into five crews on 12-hour shifts, each with a technically knowledgeable salaried shift supervisor. There are only 12 salaried positions, including the five shift supervisors, among the staff of 120 who operate the plant.

7. Self-motivated staff. Don Singer is a master maintenance technician on second shift at Edgewater. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

Safety is always on a plant manager’s mind, and Hartley is no exception. His plant hasn’t experienced a lost-time accident in more than 500 days. Edgewater’s safety committee is organized with representatives from each department plus the plant manager, the administrative assistant, and the plant environmental and safety specialist; the chief union steward is also a standing member (Figure 8). That committee is charged with making the zero-injuries corporate policy a reality at Edgewater.

  8. Focused on safety. The Edgewater Generating Station safety committee. Back row (L to R): Mike Cichocki, Coal Yard Supervisor; Jerry Strouf, Senior Environmental and Safety Specialist; Joy Hoffman, Administrative Assistant; Jason Mills, Maintenance Technician; and Don Yanna, Equipment Operator. Front row (L to R): Paul Schlegel, Equipment Operator; John Hodzinski, Maintenance Electrician; and Pat Hartley, Plant Manager. Courtesy: Alliant Energy

Day-to-day maintenance requires periodic contractor assistance in specialized areas, although the plant does have its own “R” Stamp program for repairing tube leaks. The decision to develop this in-house capability came at the conclusion of a recent tube failure–reduction program. A task force examined the root cause of tube leaks and developed specific projects to address nagging tube leak problems that were reducing plant availability. This project has more than paid for itself many times over.

A process performance engineer on the staff is responsible for maintaining the right combustion stoichiometry and optimizing performance of the three steam generators. Burning PRB coal has also challenged the plant with learning how to balance erosion versus cleaning frequency with sootblowers in certain areas of the boiler. In other locations, additional sootblowers were added, as were boiler cleanliness probes for better monitoring of boiler performance. Coal combustion by-products, such as bottom ash, are sold to a contractor for recycling, and the slag from the cyclones is sold to road-paving contractors.

Hartley also emphasized the pride the staff have in their plant and what the plant has accomplished. Edgewater has a long history of service to its community, beginning in the 1930s, and the staff take pride in passing down not only their experience, by training new operating staff members, but also the plant’s heritage and history to the next generation.

In addition to the three coal-fired units, the plant operates and maintains two remote simple-cycle combustion turbine sites. The Fond du Lac, Wis., site has four ABB 11 N1 units rated at 83 MW each; two other units at the Sheboygan Falls, Wis., site are GE Frame 7 units rated at 147 MW apiece.

No-excuses excellence

The preeminent common trait shared by the two Alliant Energy plants profiled in this article, and probably all Alliant plants, is a culture of excellence that’s engrained in the DNA of every employee. It doesn’t matter if the employee happens to be a union member, technician, or member of the management staff, each person has a part to play if the plant is to be successful.

A razor-thin plant staff is not uncommon today. What is uncommon are staffs that can consistently focus on excellence in operations and maintenance regardless of the staffing and budgeting constraints now common in our industry. Congratulations to the Lansing and Edgewater Generating Stations staffs for safely walking that tightrope.

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