The Power Plant Workforce of the Future

Charles Newbery

For combined-cycle plants, labor is becoming a key cost to watch as dispatch frequency declines. In other words, you'll need the best hands on deck. Here's a look at why and what you can do about it.

The changing workplace is a growing concern in the power sector. As new technology in power plants proliferates, companies require a workforce with additional skill sets compared to the ones yesterday's plants demanded. How can a power company prepare its workforce for this new technology? The answer lies in education and training, but first, you need to understand what major changes are in store.

The most notable trend is automation. More automation will require a mix of electrical and mechanical engineers, as well as engineers with a wider skill set, for example in computer sciences, for sensor troubleshooting and handling data-driven diagnosis and analysis. Here's a detailed look at how to prepare today's plant operators for tomorrow's shifting plant operations.

Understand the Economics of Expanding Plant Automation

The rise of automation stems from a growing concern about operations and maintenance costs. Once overlooked, these costs have become more prominent for combined-cycle power plants. The biggest cost used to be fuel, because these plants provided a baseload supply of demand for years. But the growth of renewable generation capacity—up 8.3 percent in 2017, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency—has led to combined-cycle plants operating less frequently. Some only fire up for a few hours per day to meet peak demand, which reduces fuel consumption and, thus, its proportional share of the total cost.

Plant owners are now looking at how to cut O&M costs, particularly labor. As plants dispatch less frequently, the intervals for maintenance and parts replacement become longer, which stretches out costs over more years—but it doesn't reduce the cost of labor. The workforce still gets paid, even if the plant is offline, and this cost will only increase proportionally as the dispatch frequency declines. Hence, any reduction in labor costs will benefit the balance sheet.

One way to reduce labor costs is to automate more of the plant. Many power plants have installed sensors on their rotating equipment—think: generators and gas and steam turbines—but not on balance-of-plant (BOP) equipment, like motors, pumps, and transformers. With sensor prices coming down and the proportional cost of O&M going up, it's becoming more economical to automate BOP functions.

Unlock Remote Possibilities With New Technologies

Another method for optimizing labor costs is through remote work. As a plant automates more, control-room operators can manage it—or even a fleet of plants—remotely and from one site. While onsite field operators will still be needed for routine maintenance or plant emergencies, these tasks can be combined to require fewer people, including control-room operators. With tablet computers, they can perform key functions while conducting field work, reducing the headcount at the plant.

Likewise, plant leadership can crosstrain the workforce on multiple tasks, doing away with a tradition of having one person for every task, from installation control to electronics and mechanics. Of course, workers can't be experts at everything. This is where technology can help. With video chat, telepresence, or an AR headset, a field operator can work with a remote expert to fix a problem. That expert can advise multiple locations, creating O&M savings, and provide critical cybersecurity know-how—which is often in short supply.

Close the Skills Gap With Education

To find or equip workers with new skills, education is vital. When evaluating candidates, companies should look for versatility and willingness to develop new skills. However, they should also offer an educational system to prepare employees for the changing workplace.

More cities are trying to do so. "We have to modernize the school system and understand that in today's and tomorrow's world, we actually should teach people to learn, instead of teaching just facts," Jan Vapaavuori, the mayor of Helsinki, said at the Urban 20 Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires, attended by Transform.

Eduardo Levy Yeyati, dean of the School of Government at Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, said at a sideline event at the summit, also attended by Transform, that the education system must help students "learn how to be versatile, so they can adapt to the future demands of work."

Doing so will help them become chronic students, as Dean Yeyati put it, seeking to learn new skills as professionals all the time.

Never Stop Training Your Workforce for the Future

The benefit of a well-educated workforce is that they're better equipped to run a plant at lower costs and higher availability—boosting profit potential. But power plants must build on this education by providing continuous training in the necessary evolving skill sets to smoothly transition the workforce to more-digitized plant operations. Training should include safety processes and technical competencies, so the plant runs safely and reliably. The workforce, too, must be trained to perform more remote diagnosis and protect infrastructure from cyberattacks.

Training generally accompanies the installation of new equipment, but that's simply not enough. Plants should view operational training like a university system by providing a core undergraduate education and building on it with graduate and doctorate courses, helping equip workers with skills to operate everything from boilers to digital controls and aeroderivative gas turbines.

Taking this approach to skills training will empower companies to face the one certainty in the industry—that everything is changing. When equipment changes, plants must train the workforce. When staff retires, plants must train new people, who may bring entirely different knowledge to the job. The solution is ongoing training in the classroom, simulator rooms, and onsite, as well as through self-paced distance courses.

The power plant of the future is changing; its workforce must keep up.


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