Jobs on the Line
Coal mining jobs across the U.S., including millwrights, welders, and mechanics — once high-paying jobs to keep coal-fired power plants up and running — are disappearing along with the coal-fired electric power plants themselves. There is ample political heat surrounding the trend, but the bottom line is that modern, natural gas-fired power plants that make sweeping use of predictive maintenance software, sensors, and automated control systems can operate at top speed with a fraction of the staff.
The paradigm shift in staff levels at maintenance-intensive plants filled with leak-prone pipes and valves, rotating and coal ash handling equipment, and don’t forget conveyer belts, is relatively sudden for an age-old industry given that the scenario was very different just ten years ago.
The lower headcount required at new gas-fired power plants is hands-down the result of automation and advances in control system technology. Two examples that attest to this is the recent plans announced by DTE Energy Co. (Michigan-based utility involved in the development and management of energy-related businesses and services nationwide) to spend close to $1 billion on a 1,100-megawatt gas-fired power plant, set to enter service in 2022. When it does, three existing coal-fired units currently employing upwards of 500 people will close and the new facility will only require 25 full-time employees!
Another example is the recent approval for New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. to build a 994-MW, $872 million gas-fired combined cycle power plant. The new plant will kick-off in 2020 with job openings — including management, operators, and maintenance — for just 31 people. With a one-room operator that will be able to launch the entire plant startup process with a push of a button — no field operators, no human oversight, and no intervention is required.
Research done by Black & Veatch (world leaders in engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services for energy, water and telecom) to create some kind of benchmark as to how gas-fired power plants are staffed, illustrates that “a gas-fired combined-cycle power plant with a 565-MW generating capacity needs around 27 full-time personnel. A plant configured to yield nearly 300 MW more generating capacity requires only six additional people.”
Hence, even if gas units scale in size in capacity-generation, the use of sensors that provide a constant stream of data to deliver predictive maintenance (where maintenance outages, for example, can be scheduled well in advance of equipment failure) means that their requirement for in-house maintenance staff does not escalate proportionately.
The trend also doesn’t guarantee that the few remaining jobs will automatically go to operators who have proven their proficiency. The extent of digital equipment and automation in new plants calls for different skill sets, such as an understanding of operations as processes, programmers, and those who can troubleshoot and tune ultra-efficient turbines. Specialized millwrights and boiler operators are a thing of the past!