Rapid Cycling: The Human Factor

A combination of falling natural gas prices, greater integration of renewable generation, and advancing technology has meant changing roles for many plants, particularly gas turbine combined cycle plants. (See “Managing the Changing Profile of a Combined Cycle Plant” in the June 2014 issue.) The added wear and tear on plant equipment, and the changing maintenance and operational procedures that are inherent in moving to a fast-cycling role, have drawn a great deal of attention in the industry. Less talked about is an equally important impact: what it means for plant staff.

Make no mistake, moving to two-shift, cyclic, or load-following operation means more work and more demands on plant operators and workers. Staffs who may be seasoned hands at baseload operation aren’t necessarily going to be ready to handle rapid cycling.

That’s why meeting the challenge starts with the right training.

Solid Operator Training

“The most important thing is to make sure your operators are well trained,” Steve Royall, director of fossil, solar, fuel cell operations and maintenance with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) told POWER, “and that the procedures they use are thoroughly vetted. That they adhere to the procedure is very critical—when you’re doing the same type of thing over and over, you don’t want to start doing it by rote.”

Rapid cycling procedures should be well thought out beforehand so mistakes and problems can be avoided during operation.

“We have checklists that we use that are validated by our supervisors,” Royall said. “You focus the operators on a step-by-step process so you don’t have any errors.”

Royall explained that PG&E has a rigorous computer-based and real-world training program.

“Our operator qualification program really takes the operator through both computer-based training, which is the theory part, and then a practical demonstration. We have a requalification program on an annual basis to ensure not only that the operator is well trained but can also demonstrate that he understands and can apply that training to every one of the situations” an operator will encounter.

Not everyone can handle that.

Finding good people in an “ever-shrinking pool” of qualified candidates isn’t easy, he said. For new plants, Royall recommends taking advantage of construction time to make sure operators are ready to hit the ground running.

“We’ve been able to bring in new operators nine months ahead of time to put them through a very rigorous training program with all the major equipment providers, and then a training program put on by the EPC contractor. They give them a really good foundation” for operating the plant.

But that’s not all. “During that timeframe, they’re also tasked with developing operating procedures and teaching those procedures to the rest of the staff,” Royall said. The process ensures that everyone is familiar with operating protocol through the start of the facility. Those procedures are then rigorously evaluated and updated on an annual basis to ensure plant expertise is passed down to new staff.

Neva Espinoza, senior project manager­–generation operations & maintenance with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), agrees that there’s been a shift in training approaches. “The industry used to rely more on their staff based on years and years of experience they’ve had,” but with more and more veterans retiring, plants need to lean more on clear operating procedures and “making sure you have strong training and strong qualification programs.”

A changing workforce and increased cycling means “expecting operators to have well-documented procedures in place and follow them step-by-step to make sure we are operating how we think we are operating,” Espinoza said.

A New Plant Culture

With two starts a day, dealing with routine maintenance and equipment failures takes on a very different character, Royall explained. Rigorous incident reporting is key.

Any time something fails, Royall said, “we do an incident investigation to determine what the root cause was, whether it was human performance or the equipment. What was the detail that led to the failure? Then we work on a corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” The corrective actions are compiled in a computerized maintenance program and shared with all operators in the plant and in other facilities.

PG&E also has a “near-miss” program to record potential failures that were averted. “If I have something that may be safety-related, may be equipment related, but has the potential to impact a facility, we do a very detailed report and share it with others.”

Though continuous improvement policies are valuable in any plant, they are particularly useful in rapid cycling plants, where margins for error are thin. Every mistake and failure should be used as a learning process to ensure that plant procedures and practices are continuously under review and updated as needed.

Keeping Lines Open

Espinoza highlighted the importance of communication. “Good communication from management can have a very large impact on how the workforce responds and how they take ownership of the changes.”

Plant leaders in a rapid cycling environment need to have excellent communication skills and have the ability to make everyone in the plant understand how and why things are different. Staffs need to be aware that the entire plant culture is changing, even if the changes in their immediate job scope may not appear large.

Espinoza also pointed to the possibilities of advanced technology to assist operators, such as having procedures and checklists on handheld devices like iPads. “We are starting to see more of that, but,” she said,” it is a challenge.” Not all plants have the infrastructure, such as wireless networks, to allow it. Still, those sorts of tools can help make operators more effective and better aware of what’s going on in their plant.

Dealing with the Added Stress

The greater workload and higher demands on staff means more stress on operators. How are plants dealing with it? “What we are seeing is plants taking more time in training their staff,” Espinoza said, not just in reviewing and updating procedures but enabling staff to perform a range of roles. “Instead of just being an operator, you have a secondary skill, such as mechanic,” so that burdens fall more equally across the team and staff have more facility with the entire plant.

Needs will vary with each plant, but staffing levels should be reviewed to ensure no one is getting burned out and that all staff members have the time and energy to remain focused on their jobs and keep up with the added training demands.

While some plants are relying on staff multi-tasking, this may not work everywhere. At some plants, the added demands from rapid cycling mean regular plant staff have little time for maintenance tasks. This is why some companies are relying on specialized teams not tied to a specific plant. “We are seeing maintenance staff who will travel from one plant to another to do similar maintenance tasks,” Espinoza said. That can take some of the burden off staff at each plant.

Changing Plant Goals

For plants that are changing roles, careful evaluation is critical. PG&E does routine cycling cost studies at their plants. This can help highlight areas that will need attention.

“Your facility may have been designed more to be baseload than cycling as frequently. An engineering review of all those key components” can help show what will need to be done. Such a review will show plant staff “what we think the weak points are,” Royall said. “Here is what you’re going to need to buy. When each piece of equipment will be needed.” Some things are key immediately, while others can be considered as additional needs later. “Looking ahead at all those things really brings it to the point where you can understand, this is what I need to pay, this is what I need to do.” Plant personnel will see the things that impact operations and what needs to change with training.

Changes in Outage Management

The traditional approach toward fall and spring outages is not likely to change much, according to Royall. That being said, more frequent starts mean more frequent maintenance cycles that are tied to plant startups. Fortunately, more and more suppliers offer solutions for continuous monitoring of critical plant assets, he noted. Here again, rigorous training is key, Royall said. “Having your staff equipped with the correct procedures, having them comfortable so that they know how to complete every one of these evolutions, and having the operators and entire staff understanding that [the added workload] is the norm” can make fast cycling operation much less stressful.

Still, outage management is unquestionably more complex, Espinoza explained. Plants are finding more wear and tear during seasonal outages or having to take longer outage intervals. More engineering analysis is necessary to understand and anticipate the additional maintenance demands. That means keeping staff skills high and procedures clear.

Rapid cycling operation will never be as easy as baseload, but a well-trained and managed staff can keep things running smoothly.

—Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor.