Power plant personnel: Best practices

The real dollar value of skilled operators.


Brian Wodka, PE, CEM, LEED AP RMF, Engineering, Inc.Over the years, electronics, software and technology in general have become less expensive for power plants, but operators' wages continue to rise-especially as the labor pool diminishes. As equipment is becoming engineered for more reliability and controllability, power plants are becoming more automated. This has become the justification for fewer power plant operators on staff, with some facilities attempting to become or successfully becoming completely unmanned.

While this seems to make sense on a financial report, the reality is that technology is not advanced enough for complete automation of essential occupations-and for critical facilities, it can never fully be automated.


Reliability is essential to the successful operation of a power plant. By definition, a power plant generates some form or forms of needed power (heating, cooling, electricity, etc.). The idea of "reliability" has a pretty standard definition and is a part of common vernacular.

With reliability being a top priority, maintenance needs to be regularly performed to sustain the reliability of the power plant equipment. In order for equipment to remain reliable, the proper maintenance has to be performed, and plant operators have to be fully prepared for the unexpected.

For example, the worst time to have a heating plant outage would be the coldest day of the year. However, on that day, the power plant equipment will be operating at its greatest capacity, potentially higher than ever before. The coldest day of the year is also the day of the highest natural gas demand, so plant owners can expect to be curtailed and have to run on back-up fuel oil. The equipment that typically runs less than one week a year is now supporting the entire plant at full load and needs to sustain the entire campus. If the power plant is designed to operate in an automated state for the majority of its life, what do you think happens in these critical, high-risk situations? More than likely, the plant (or some portion of the plant) fails-and that's when you realize the value of having skilled plant operators on staff.

In situations like these, reliability engineering and statistics are paramount. Knowing that with enough time, regardless of the design, a failure is inevitable; owners should assume that a failure (or failures) will occur and prepare accordingly. By assuming that a failure will definitely occur, the element of probability is removed. With probability removed and certainty present, owners can evaluate the impact of emergency plant loss situations. You will find that as facilities become more automated, they are intrinsically accepting much more risk than they realize; not from the loss of reliability, but from the loss of maintainability.


"Maintainability" can be defined as the probability that the maintenance can be fully performed in the allocated time period. In other words, what are the chances that the maintenance can be completed on time?

Considering the forecast of technology in the foreseeable future, the following axiom holds a very powerful argument:

"Proper maintenance and repair of a power plant cannot be fully automated."

This includes maintaining the operations of the plant during a high-risk scenario. Automated systems all too often default to shutdown when something minor could be done to prevent it. Few people will argue with the ability of an automated system to instantaneously identify an issue or alarm, and then proceed to carefully and systematically shut the system or the entire plant down.

However, plants are also automatically shut down during cases of false alarms.

Due to this fact, properly trained, human, power plant operators will continue to be one of the most valuable and cost-effective assets of a power plant simply due to their ability to best evaluate and resolve an emergency situation consisting of multiple system complications or failures.

In addition, as power plant equipment becomes more automated, the controls and complexity tend to increase. Reparability tends to decrease as issues with electronics, software and custom/proprietary components require outsourcing the work to specialists or replacing the entire component. There is a direct correlation between more automation and reduced maintainability. This means that not if, but when a system fails in a highly automated plant, it typically takes longer to repair.

As equipment-automation increases, the importance of minimizing downtime increases. If increasing the automation of a power plant causes the duration of downtime (maintainability) to increase more than the increase in uptime (reliability), then the net availability of the power plant actually goes down.

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