Nondestructive testing (NDT) blends quality assurance and materials science. It is used to inspect and evaluate materials, components, and assemblies without destroying their serviceability. In the power industry, few techniques are more valuable than NDT in managing assets.
The power generation industry currently stands at the crossroads of tradition and innovation. With most conversations about the power industry focused on renewable energy production, long-term maintenance and innovation in fossil fuels can become an afterthought. This oversight is concerning, especially considering that fossil fuels remain the largest source of electricity generation in the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration, more than 60% of the U.S.’s electricity was produced from fossil fuels in 2022.
Prioritize Maintanance of Aging Assets
While the energy transition continues to gain traction, fossil fuels remain a key source of energy for our society. In the dynamic landscape of power generation, the intricate balance between detailed asset management and cutting-edge technological advancements is increasingly clear. It’s crucial for utilities to maintain their fossil fuel power assets and their aging infrastructure. Fossil fuel power stations around the world need to be properly managed and sustained to optimize their serviceability to be able to provide reliable electricity to customers.
The vulnerability of aging power infrastructure that results from lack of maintenance can make essential facilities more susceptible to unpredictable risks and power outages. Proper asset management, on the other hand, can address potential interruptions in the power supply chain before they occur. It has become an increasingly important practice as energy infrastructure ages because proper maintenance can help support material longevity and prevent expensive replacement costs down the line (Figure 1).
1. Properly maintaining equipment has never been more important than it is today. Neglecting equipment can lead to costly downtime and more expensive repairs. Source: Envato Elements
Comprehensive Testing and Inspections Are Vital to Success
Engineers rely on qualified inspectors to conduct quality evaluations and tests of materials as a component of asset management. By conducting frequent inspections, power plant owners can ensure their energy supply is safe for consumers and the environment while also enhancing sustainability and cost efficiency. Nondestructive testing (NDT), inspection techniques that evaluate materials without destroying their serviceability, is a central element of these asset management inspections. Because of what NDT can reveal, such examinations fundamentally help maintain the integrity of power infrastructure components.
Because they lie at the heart of fossil fuel power generation, boilers and turbines require significant attention in asset management and inspection. Unfortunately, these vital components are multiple in number, complex in mechanics, and spread out geographically, which makes inspections more complicated and time-consuming. It’s critical for facility engineers to work with qualified NDT inspection professionals who understand the industry and can comprehend such complexities. With proper training in the latest inspection tools and technologies, NDT professionals can better detect the shape and size of flaws and defects with immediate data collection and little interruption to daily processes and procedures (Figure 2).
2. Nondestructive testing (NDT) allows a material to be thoroughly evaluated for defects without causing damage in the process. Source: Envato Elements
Inspections for boilers are federally mandated by the National Board Inspection Code (NBIC), but each state also has its own specific regulations and rules for turbine inspections and overall power plant management. Inspections and test plans usually must meet the requirements of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Code Section I. During inspection and maintenance, the industry has various codes and recommended practices for boilers and other components, including the American Petroleum Institute (API) Recommended Practice (RP) 573, API RP 577, API RP 571, and ASME Code Section IX. Boilers and turbines must be inspected on a regular basis, with intervals ranging from a 12-month period to a 24-month period. When unsafe conditions are noted during an inspection, the interval between routine examinations can lessen to every six months.
The actual frequency of inspection, however, is flexible and determined primarily by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). OEMs typically have a 10-, 20-, or 50-year asset maintenance plan. Often, manufacturers will have a 10-year plan in which they assess 10% of the equipment each year so that the entire plant is evaluated within 10 years before restarting the inspection cycle. While these long periods of time between asset inspections can be risky, the actual equipment in use can cause a bigger issue. Many boilers have a life expectancy of 20 years, but they often remain in service for up to 60 years. This can significantly increase the potential for flaws and defects, and the asset’s risk of failure.
Highly Trained, Qualified Personnel Fundamental to the Process
Although the frequency of inspections is regulated, requirements for inspection personnel are not. Because of the lack of federal regulations, utility companies determine who they hire and what qualifications inspectors must have. The absence of an industry standard encourages reliance on underqualified personnel to perform subpar but likely less-costly inspections. Fortunately, many third-party organizations such as the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) offer NDT inspection certification and qualification programs to ensure personnel have the specialized skill to work with NDT techniques and technologies (Figure 3). Regulation of personnel requirements including specific certifications should be mandated to standardize the industry and improve consistency of inspection quality for all utilities and manufacturers.
3. NDT inspectors are often highly trained and can be certified by third-party organizations to provide assurance that they are skilled and competent in their craft. Source: Envato Elements
With many boilers and turbines surpassing their expected lifespans and digital innovations paving the way forward, the quest for operational efficiency, safety, and sustainability becomes more than just a routine—it’s a craft. To develop a personnel requirement standard, the industry also must recognize the value of competency in addition to the importance of certification. Competency is a measurable skill that is not always captured in the knowledge testing of a certification exam. By incorporating hands-on learning, NDT personnel can be equipped with the properly developed skills to conduct different NDT inspections.
Through these third-party organization certification and qualification programs, NDT technicians can help more individuals become qualified NDT personnel with the competency to conduct inspections of the highest quality. The risk of failure for our aging infrastructure is a constant issue, and the guarantee of high-quality testing is not enforced by the federal government. Therefore, industry leaders need to ensure the best inspections are being conducted to ensure component integrity. It is also the responsibility of the industry to impose more inspection rules and requirements in the industry to make up for the lack of substantial federal regulations and preserve the value of NDT inspections and proper asset management.
As Technology Evolves, so Must Techniques
New trends such as custom manufacturing component testing, remote testing, and predictive maintenance throughout the materials’ lifecycle are being employed to improve safety, sustainability, and quality assurance in NDT inspections. These improvements have become a result of the digitalization of the inspection industry.
Digitalization constantly brings new technological advancements. New NDT inspection tools are frequently introduced, requiring NDT professionals to regularly update their training to ensure they understand the latest in modern inspection technology. It’s important for engineers and inspectors alike to monitor the growth of digitalization and the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in the power industry. With the adaptation of new tools and data-driven technologies in different NDT techniques, data collection and analysis during inspections can improve predictive maintenance for asset management.
Though the power generation landscape continues to evolve, balancing the assets of our energy past with the promise of a sustainable future remains critical. While the spotlight often shines on renewable energy’s potential, we cannot neglect the essential infrastructure of fossil fuel generation. From the nuanced dance of asset management, underscored by rigorous inspection and technological advancement, to the transformative potential of AI-powered predictive maintenance, our approach to energy management will define the legacy we leave behind. Competence in asset management, combined with industry-wide standardization, is not just a priority; it is an imperative.
—David Bajula, CEng is the former Board Chair, President, and Vice President of the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT). He is also an NDT Level III Consultant.