Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 4/2020

Maintenance in times of corona crisis

Yes, these are truly extraordinary times that this virus brings with it! Not only do we have to keep our distance to our best friends and the children can only communicate with grandma and grandpa via media, no, the Covid-19 disease does not stop at the power industry!

The technical service and maintenance will be put to a hard test during the current corona pandemic. Technicians, fitters and even large parts of the employees are in the front line when it comes to keeping machinery and equipment in power plants running.

In many non-system-relevant areas of mechanical engineering, such as the automotive industry, production and thus also maintenance is shut down to prevent infection. Of course, the health of the employees is also a top priority in our power plant. Nevertheless, the energy supply in the country must be ensured to avoid a blackout.

At present, energy suppliers and network operators have a very important task. As operators of critical infrastructures, they must ensure that the employees in these plants are particularly protected. This includes not only the specialist personnel in a control room of a power plant, but also the technicians who work on the networks on site and at the customers’ premises to rectify faults.

Here, a number of behaviours have already been or are being implemented to ensure social distance and extensive hygiene measures. These are certainly like the now existing mask obligation, which takes getting used to, but are absolutely essential and necessary in order to prevent infection of the employees. Should this happen, even more extraordinary actions are already being considered. This includes, for example, the quartering of employees in the control centres in strictly separated teams.

Fortunately, that is not yet the case. We travel to the power plant every day, sometimes staggered from each other, and maintain the respective components of the plant.

At Uniper, depending on the area of responsibility and the state of digitalisation, we are also able to work largely in the home office and only be spontaneously ready for action on demand. However, this can only be implemented to a limited extent at the base of a power plant, because maintenance and inspection work requires the presence of employees, who in turn ensure that the plant is available at full capacity.

Colleagues from the maintenance department, who had their workplaces in shared offices, were therefore physically separated from each other. The safety instructions and risk assessments on site are now carried out under special rules, which means they require correspondingly more effort, time and patience.

If the power supply of the power plant is not needed at some time, because the electricity demand is already covered by regenerative energy production or other producers, we are nevertheless available at all times, in case of bottlenecks or malfunctions in the grid.

Furthermore, the internal procurement channels for the spare parts required in each case must of course also function. This is also a particular challenge in times of the corona pandemic, because the responsible colleagues from the purchasing department are currently working exclusively from home and have to react and act quickly.

At our power plant, video conferences are held almost daily to coordinate technical and other far-reaching issues. However, this challenge is also a source of motivation and reflects the fact that it can only be done together. All departments have to interlock like the gearwheels of a gear box so that the required performance is achieved in the end!

The daily video conferences are certainly a very good way of staying in touch in the current situation. Not least because technology makes it possible and we currently have few alternatives.

In my opinion, however, a personal meeting is essential for various topics and should be back in the spotlight after the crisis. Personal contact with colleagues, a joint look at technical details or a problem in the plant cannot be replaced even by the better technological possibilities.

“Last but not least”, we have adapted our audit strategy to the situation and this year we have concentrated only on the absolutely technically necessary measures and on the upcoming statutory audits. In this way we reduce the risk of infection for our employees and our partner companies.

I hope that we will go into the next few months stronger together with this cross-departmental team spirit and that we will remember this in better times. Together we will tackle the crisis with mutual understanding, respect and solidarity.