Regional Service Organization Provides Supplemental Maintenance Support

American Electric Power’s Field Services Regional Service Organization augments resident power plant maintenance teams to provide outage support and non-outage balance-of-plant support. The augmentation approach adds significant value to the maintenance process, with the greatest benefits coming in the areas of expertise, cost, productivity, and ownership.

The American Electric Power (AEP) system provides electricity to some 5.3 million customers across 11 states. The AEP fleet has a total capacity of nearly 39,000 MW and a fuel mix of 66% coal, 22% natural gas, 6% nuclear, and 6% hydro. In order to leverage the expertise of its in-house personnel fleetwide, AEP created the Field Services Regional Service Organization (RSO). The advantages of AEP’s RSO are numerous: sharing historical fleet knowledge, reinforcing traditional partnerships, optimizing fleet outage schedules, integrating knowledge transfer, and promoting continuous process improvement.

AEP’s RSO consists of 310 full-time employees who work across the generating fleet. Rob Osborne, manager of AEP Field Services, and John Ranegar, manager of AEP Regional Outage Management, shared details of the RSO approach with POWER in January.

An Overview of the RSO Approach

The majority of RSO employees are physical workers in the mechanic, turbine mechanic, welder, and instrumentation and control technician classifications. These disciplines represent the resources necessary to take on almost any maintenance activity in a generating station. On some occasions, RSO resources also have been called upon to supplement construction resources. The Field Services organization also has a number of employees who coordinate the work activities of others.

The Field Services team has a Regional Outage and Maintenance Planning Team of 14 employees who are responsible for target outage planning and execution coordination. “Target outages” represent the greatest risk to AEP based on cost, schedule, and work scope.

Responsibility for outage implementation resides with the entire outage execution team. This team consists of a region outage manager from Field Services, a plant outage manager, a project manager, and construction managers from the Major Projects Support Group, as well as a number of support personnel from these organizations.

“Outage work is prioritized collaboratively by all stakeholders,” Ranegar said. “RSO resources are utilized in the areas that provide the most value when cost, risk and technical requirements are analyzed. This transparent approach to resource prioritization is fundamental to the RSO success, as we have to ensure all parties are on board with the utilization plan for resources.”

The team prepares and supports a completely integrated outage execution schedule that drives process ownership and accountability across the team. The targeted outage readiness process starts 18 months before the actual outage begins, requiring all parties to participate in a significant number of readiness activities. This transparent readiness process establishes clear expectations for all team members and raises the accountability for actions they must take to support successful execution.

Ranegar explained that the team focuses its efforts on (and evaluates performance based on) three phases: Phase 1—readiness/preparedness, Phase 2—execution, and Phase 3—post-outage performance, where reliability is the driving success metric. These performance metrics become part of all stakeholders’ incentive plans. They also encourage the team to pull on “one rope” together, providing a common focus and driving team success.

“Disciplined planning drives extraordinary results,” Osborne said. “Safety is the most important aspect of any challenge we undertake.” He emphasized that “projects where we apply the disciplined outage and maintenance planning process are our safest and most productive projects.” The company’s policy is that the staff can complete their work without that work resulting in employee injury.

Centralized Facility Fosters Expertise

Within Field Services, AEP has centralized machine shop facilities where nearly all fleet steam path maintenance repair activities are performed. These shop facilities allow the company to optimize outage schedules by prioritizing work scope and optimize shop resources to support the highest priority work, in a fashion similar to that outlined for the RSO group. The shop facilities group possesses the capability to re-blade turbine rotors, repair turbine stationary components, repair and overhaul large steam-driven pumps, rebuild large axial flow fans, rewind and repair major generator components, and rebuild large-horsepower motors as needs arise (Figure 1).

1. Masterly machining. AEP Field Services has centralized machine shop facilities where nearly all the fleet steam-path maintenance repairs are performed. One example of the AEP machine shop’s high-quality work is the new replacement wheel installed in the low-pressure rotor at the 528-MW coal-fired Flint Creek Power Plant near Gentry, Ark. Courtesy: American Electric Power

The AEP centralized shop’s capabilities add extraordinary value to the process, as the Shop Services team’s performance rivals that of any equipment repair shop in the country, based on quality and production, while enhancing schedule flexibility, according to Ranegar.

“Our unique and talented employees provide technical oversight for turbine maintenance projects,” Osborne said. “This team consists of 12 full-time AEP employees with great technical knowledge from years of experience and technical training” (Figure 2).

2. Top turbine talent. The AEP turbine coordination team consists of 12 full-time AEP employees with extensive technical knowledge from years of experience and technical training. The team assisted in the installation of the MTU–110 LP1 turbine at the 1,300-MW coal-fired Moutaineer Power Plant near New Haven, W.V. The upper half of the turbine’s casing has been removed and the area barricaded so work can be performed. Courtesy: American Electric Power

The AEP turbine coordinators typically offset the need for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) technical advisor on a turbine project, lowering technical support costs across the fleet. As the technical experts on the floor, turbine coordinators allow the team to make sound, quick technical determinations, expediting the work process while ensuring equipment integrity via interface with the Turbine Engineering Team. Traditional customer/OEM risk determinations and associated decisions are approached from a completely different angle than the ownership perspective used in the AEP model.

“The turbine coordination team provides candor when we fall short of team process expectations,” Osborne said. “This internal learning and accountability process has proven to be key to team success, allowing us to incrementally improve our processes year after year.”

The coordinators have shared responsibility for schedule development and execution with the RSO team, which provides significant forward-looking capabilities to the execution process. The coordinators also provide process modifications that can be built into the equipment series schedules and work packages, which, in turn, foster long-term process success.

In addition, the turbine coordination team has established relationships with a number of contractors who can be called upon to augment the team when the technical support demand warrants their services.

Managing RSO and Plant Priorities

AEP has non-outage or home-based RSO employees co-located at its larger generating stations. They augment the plant maintenance resources and can be assigned, as needed, to any facility. The AEP staff generally finds that outages provide the greatest opportunity to add value within the fleet, specifically in the area of rotating equipment maintenance.

“RSO employees often travel from their home base location to another plant during outage seasons. We also support forced outages, as indicated by value assessments, allowing for a quick turnaround of generating,” Ranegar said. “We have great employees who understand their role, allowing our organization to react quickly to provide optimum value.”

The RSO team conducts routine planning meetings and provides specific updates to all stakeholders to ensure that they all understand the plan the team has for managing AEP resources. This approach allows questions to be asked up front and helps the RSO team’s internal customers understand the need to prioritize their work in order to support those activities that are best for the fleet as a whole. Ranegar noted that “we have a great company, and our team understands our business in a way that allows us all to see the value in the transparent plan we communicate.”

The RSO team conducts periodic assessments where the entire group evaluates outage readiness at specific points during the pre-outage phase. These readiness sessions drive team accountability and optimize outage readiness. Then the assessment results are compiled for all outages and are communicated across the organization, allowing all parties to understand the remaining scope associated with outage preparedness.

Strategies for Better Outage Management

Because coal fuels the vast majority of AEP’s fleet and coal-fired plant outages are more complex than those for gas-fired plants, the company is applying its outage management process first to coal-fired plants.

“Our goal is to optimize generation assets by executing outages in a safe and productive manner through detailed planning and scheduling that begins 18 months prior to the outage,” Ranegar said. “We are able to accomplish this goal through a series of readiness assessment activities that are held periodically during the 18 months prior to the outage start date. These readiness assessment meetings bring together all stakeholders to determine how well the team is progressing against a well-understood readiness template of key outage readiness milestones that we have developed over time.”

He described how “this readiness template is dynamic and is modified as we identify learning opportunities. Learning a lesson one time (as opposed to repeating an error) is the key philosophy of consistent outage readiness.”

Each targeted outage is periodically evaluated to determine how well the team is doing in the planning, scheduling, and preparation phases. The team determines the actions that need to be taken during the next period, as well as owners of those actions. This method allows the entire team to see where the energy and effort needs to be applied. The information is communicated freely, resulting in understanding and transparent accountability within the team. Transparent communication about outage schedules allows each organization to reduce costs by eliminating overtime required for critical path activity support.

“If we all understand what we have to do and we all understand who needs help, it makes it easier for all of us to get on ‘that rope’ together. This drives extraordinary team results,” Ranegar said.

Working on day-to-day issues can distract personnel from longer-term goals such as outage planning and preparedness. This process forces the team to regularly refocus on outage readiness.

The process also requires the team to perform periodic risk assessments, resulting in a risk register and associated action plans. These risk assessments culminate throughout the process in confidence reports that are communicated throughout the corporation, allowing all parties to understand both budget and schedule risk associated with outage completion. This process transparency allows the team to react appropriately to identify risks, resulting in resource optimization in all aspects of the business, Ranegar explained.

During the execution phase, the team participates in a daily update process to review critical outage metrics, including safety, schedule, and budget. These metrics are published in a daily status report. The daily meetings highlight process execution barriers associated with the project, allowing all parties to react before a crisis point is reached.

Ranegar pointed out that “The process also measures unit post-outage performance. That is the real indicator of how well the team prepared the unit for service.” These metrics monitor unit performance for a specific period to ensure that any capacity-reducing issues that should have been identified and remediated during the outage are identified. Processes then can be improved, thereby setting the team up for success in the future.

Monitoring of outage execution success metrics only ends when the unit is released to full-load dispatch. Ranegar added that “this philosophy improves unit post-outage start-up focus among all parties, resulting in optimized unit start-up support, hence optimizing the generation assets.”

Lessons learned from outages are captured, compiled, and utilized to minimize the same or similar errors or impacts on subsequent outages across the fleet.

Improving Environmental Compliance

The greatest advantage of integrating the RSO with the outage management process is realized with AEP’s environmental retrofit program, which has required significant capital investment. Outages associated with environmental equipment process tie-in have been some of AEP’s most critical due to their duration, work scope, and associated capital expense. “These outages demand our most disciplined efforts to ensure success,” Ranegar said. “These all have been targeted outages utilizing the outage management processes we have discussed.”

Cost-Cutting Benefits

The Field Services group provides a number of critical functions, including planned and forced outage work by the RSO team, shop support for major equipment repair, and turbine coordination support for turbine component repair. “These functions pay huge dividends from a cost perspective,” Osborne said. “AEP Field Services provides services at a significantly reduced cost per hour while also providing much better productivity rates compared with other contract labor. We track our value added annually based on our discounted rates and benchmark other projects to ensure the discounted rate represents the real bottom-line impact associated with our work.”

The RSO team also has a significant advantage reacting to emergent work such as forced outage equipment repair, according to Osborne. The team can mobilize and be working much more quickly than other entities by the nature of the team’s structure. Consequently, the team’s rapid reaction time adds significant value when it comes to equipment turnaround associated with unit availability.

“Our team is ready to react, and we understand how our actions add that incremental commercial value to the company bottom line,” he said. “We are AEP employees and therefore have a much greater sense of ownership. We also understand our equipment due to the fact that we work on it frequently, and our processes revolve around our equipment, really driving much better equipment understanding and a more consistent result.”

Looking Forward

In 2012, AEP is developing a business plan to apply the outage management process to its combustion turbine fleet while its Fossil Fleet Outage Management Organization continues to improve the effectiveness of outages for coal-fired units.

“During this transitional period associated with new environmental regulations, our generating fleet will see units being operated and maintained in a different fashion, including unit retirements,” Osborne said. “We will be asked to react to new challenges within those facilities and, due to our dynamic way of doing business, our team will be able to help our fleet work through issues that they have not experienced before.”

Staffing levels in facilities will soon be changing due to a large number of workers who are starting to retire, and the RSO team will provide some relief when called upon to optimize affected units’ performance. Osborne emphasized that “this dynamic reaction capability from our team provides significant added value.”

Angela Neville, JD, is POWER’s senior editor.

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