Users’ Groups Provide Value to Plant Operators

If you look up the history of users’ groups, you’ll find that many early organizations focused on computers. While it’s hard to confirm all the details, at least one source suggested that the first users’ group was formed by a few dozen IBM mainframe computer customers in 1953. The participants found these informal meetings, which allowed them to discuss common coding problems and distribute end-user created programs, to be a great way to share knowledge for the betterment of all.

Of course, users’ groups are not exclusive to the computer world. The power industry has plenty of worthwhile users’ groups. Some concentrate on particular fuels, like the Powder River Basin Coal Users’ Group (PRBCUG), while others revolve around specific technology, such as the Combustion Turbine Operations Technical Forum (CTOTF)—a gas turbine users’ group—or the HRSG User’s Group, which focuses on heat recovery steam generators (HRSGs) and combined cycle operations and maintenance (O&M) issues.

Conferences and Meetings

POWER recently formed a partnership with CTOTF, becoming the group’s official publication, among other things. As such, a member of POWER’s editorial staff will attend CTOTF’s twice-yearly conferences and report on important topics covered during the events. I had the pleasure of attending the group’s fall conference, held September 16–20, 2018, in Chandler, Arizona. Jack Borsch, CTOTF’s chairman, noted that this was the 43rd year that the group has been bringing power professionals and industry leaders together. I found it to be a very interesting and worthwhile experience.

One of the benefits of users’ groups is that attendees can network with and learn from others who are dealing with similar challenges, and the discussions usually take place in an open and honest environment. Everyone I met at the CTOTF event seemed genuinely interested in helping others succeed, and the lessons shared were often directly applicable to many users at the event. Personally, I found the question and answer sessions to be particularly useful. The format allowed users to share details about trouble they were experiencing at their plant, and solutions were offered not only by conference organizers, but also by other attendees. Most plant issues are not first-of-a-kind problems, so this was a great way to gain insight from peers.

POWER has also had a longstanding partnership with the PRBCUG. The group was founded by two experienced coal power professionals—Jim Wiseman and Randy Rahm—along with David Johnson, who was a founder of both the POWER-GEN International and ELECTRIC POWER events. Johnson was a leader with the TradeFair Group (TFG) when the PRBCUG was formed. Today, TFG and POWER are both part of Access Intelligence, a media company that serves several major markets.

Next year will be the 19th year that the PRBCUG annual educational summit has been co-located with ELECTRIC POWER, which will be held at the Mirage Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 23–26. “Rather than learning from the ‘School of Hard Knocks,’ attending the summit is a cost-effective means of gaining the knowledge needed to safely and efficiently handle and burn coal from peers who have ‘been there and done that,’ ” said Rahm.

This year the HRSG User’s Group will also co-locate its annual conference with ELECTRIC POWER. Rob Swanekamp, founder and director of the HRSG User’s Group, said having an open forum at the conference, in which everyone can speak and provide solutions to common industry problems, is one of the key benefits of the organization.

Swanekamp shared an example of the HRSG User’s Group helping to solve a problem for a member. “During a discussion, a user questioned a deposit he had found that was not [flow-accelerated-corrosion] related. A consulting engineer in the room knew right away that it was spinel, a deposit which only occurs at temperatures in excess of 1,300F. Since HRSGs typically only operate at 1,050F, testing was done and it was found the duct burners were not tuned properly. Because of our format where consultants, manufacturers, and users all can join into the discussions, solutions like this are a common occurrence,” he said.

Awards and Other Benefits

In addition to conferences, users’ groups provide several other important opportunities and benefits. One is the chance for recognition. The PRBCUG board of directors has been honoring a Plant of the Year for many years. Earning the award is not easy. Five board members visited this year’s winner—Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station—in January to evaluate not only the plant’s operational performance, but also its housekeeping, safety practices, and environmental performance. POWER featured the plant in a cover story article to highlight the accomplishment (see “Common Goals and Team Mentality a Winning Combination” in the June 2018 issue). Another is a means for members to stay connected throughout the year by using PRBCUG’s interactive website and access to the PowerSafe Combustible Dust Awareness for Coal e-learning course for both employees and contractors who work in coal handling areas.

Similarly, the HRSG User’s Group regularly recognizes significant achievements among its members. This year, the group honored now-retired Tampa Electric Maintenance Specialist Paul Lofton with a lifetime achievement award in combined cycle O&M during its conference. Another benefit the group provides members is a HRSG Users Handbook, which provides important information on the design, operations, and maintenance of combined cycle power plants. A periodic newsletter is also distributed to members with articles about current combined cycle issues and technology.

Furthermore, at CTOTF’s fall conference, the group unveiled its new “Innovation Excellence” awards program. The awards are intended to showcase exemplary innovation by simple cycle or combined cycle combustion turbine owners and operators from around the world in six categories: operational, technical, management and process, maintenance, safety process, and environmental stewardship. The CTOTF awards will be presented to winners at the group’s spring conference in St. Augustine, Florida, April 28–May 2, 2019. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.