Cyber standards proposed by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. are in limbo this summer, although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission anticipates taking action on them soon. Once...
IT systems ease the pain of power plant restarts.
Ensuring that power plant outages go smoothly has always been critical to the financial health of any power plant or electric utility. But in light of the current business environment, the financial stakes have never been higher.
The reasons are many. New environmental regulations are forcing utilities—many with generating assets in different parts of the country—to decide whether to retrofit aging coal-fired plants or simply retire them. At the same time, low natural gas prices have utilities running more gas turbine plants for baseload duty.
Keeping nuclear refueling outages on-track has become more urgent as well, because sustained outages can lead to supply shortages and even blackouts. This is best illustrated by the current electric power supply concerns in Southern California due to the outage at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
In any case, the close working relationship utilities have always had with their outage services vendors has become, by sheer necessity, even closer.
“Outage planning has become anything but routine,” says Charles Athanasia, vice president of thermal services at Alstom. “There’s incredible economic pressure on power generation facilities. In general, demand for electricity is down, environmental regulations are in a state of flux, and natural gas prices are low.”
Generators need to define their mission critical assets, and in a volatile market that’s always a moving target. “We’re seeing more partnering because customers want us to help them determine the most efficient and cost-effective ways to deploy their assets.”
In fact, the outage paradigm appears to have changed. While vendors still play a key role in determining outage scope, they’re also being asked to help utilities determine outage timing. And seemingly every outage participant, from design engineering and construction services to craft labor, has become an integral part of the planning process.
“It’s crucial for us to be tied closely to our customers prior to an outage because planning is just as important as conducting the outage itself,” says Jim Vono, field services general manager at GE Energy. “The planning typically begins 18 months prior to the actual event, which helps greatly in terms of evaluating customer needs and optimizing what amounts to a collaborative outage plan.”
Planning for a Fleet
The utility fleet is ranked in a tiered or hierarchal way, says Harry Sauer, senior vice president of the U.S. power sector at WorleyParsons. In today’s environment, a coal-fired plant that was once near the top of the dispatch queue might have moved down to cycling duty due to gas prices or environmental concerns. Depending on the plant location, Sauer says a utility can spend $2 million on one coal-fired unit while spending only $200,000 on a sister unit that’s on the bubble for decommissioning.
“Is there a greater focus or emphasis on outage planning? Yes, but it depends on where the plant is located,” Sauer says. “The dispatch situation in California or the Northeast is different from other parts of the country.