Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 6/2014

Maintenance “on the edge”?

Since liberalisation of the electricity market, former editorials were entitled “Maintenance – challenge for change”, “Future challenges for the maintenance and service business” or “Mainte­nance strategy in the current energy market”. I opted for a more “provocative” headline: “Maintenance “on the edge”?” which – according to my option – fits more the current situation.

The German turnaround in energy policy (Energiewende) has dramatical effects on conventional power plants because of the massive extension of renewable energies.

Since the phasing out of nuclear energy, lignite-fired power plants are to supply base load and older hard coal-fired plants, which normally had to supply medium load, are now being employed as peak load power plants. These aged plants are operat­ed at less full load hours and they also have to cope with frequent start-ups and shutdowns as well as steep load ramps.

The economic constraints, i.e. optimisation of generation cost, also put pressure on the budgets of operation and maintenance. Responsible managers often have to balance between top-down company budgets and bottom-up calculations on plant level. Al­though it goes without saying, I would like to emphasize that this balancing act has to be done by taking into account that plant and operational safety take top priority. The same applies to all environmental and legal requirements that must be adhered to.

How can this work? – is a question that forces itself into the mind.

I would like to start with the organisation of maintenance. Mean­while most companies follow the scheme of maintenance plant responsibility (responsibility for measures and costs) and re­sponsibility for realising maintenance measures (maintenance carried out by partners and ser vice companies). Maximum transparency of cost and rigorous cost discipline are inevitable. Instead of comprehensive maintenance “at any cost”, unnecessary refurbish masures and replacements are to be avoided. Some components are operated much longer, even if this means consumption of lifetime. Only those measures are taken which actually increase plant safety and availability or at least keep them. Tight budgets call for intelligence, creativity and increas­ing know-how in power plant engineering and the general policy always follows the motto: “provided is not spent”.

Unscheduled maintenance measures are possibly to be compensated by the annual budget.

This new situations requires maximum discipline from all par­ties involved and constructive cooperation. Therefore it is abso­lutely necessary that the entire staff – and not only management – adapts flexibly to the new situation and accepts the new challenges.

It is not surprising that more and more control room operators, patrol and maintenance personnel do not only understand terms like “Clean Dark Spread” or “Merit Order”, but have internalised these terms and cooperate actively to achieve the “joint target”.

Plant and budget managers have to cooperate with own plant operation personnel, plant and external maintenance staff and suppliers to identify economically efficient solutions by exploit­ing the residual lifetime of plants. This is why calculations and tests are becoming increasingly im­portant parts of maintenance in order to permanently guarantee plant safety.

Particularly in older plants (>20 to 30 operating yeas and more) it cannot be expected that components that have yet run smoothly will continue to do so in future, i.e. probable de­ficiencies have to be anticipated proactively in due time. The situation becomes even worse by the fact that fossil-fired plants are suffering from additional stresses caused by frequent start-up and shutdown with hardly any operating experience concerning these modes of operation. Low load op­eration, fast load ramps and a broad range of hard coal qualities are further challeng­es which also have to be taken into account.

Another important aspect I would like to mention is the qualification and the keeping of qualification of our own staff and the know-how of our suppliers and service companies. Despite the retirements of experienced personnel and the tendency to decrease staff numbers, training and qualification have to be strengthened, be­cause well-trained and qualified personnel is the key to success.

This challenge was accepted within the STEAG group. One major optimisation is the bundling of the complete maintenance per­sonnel in a new subsidiary called “STEAG Technischer Service GmbH”. In the past STEAG had a fixed number of maintenance personnel at each site. Now, it is no longer economically justified to employ a fixed number of maintenance workers at the sites due to the unforeseeable operating times of power plants. In these days flexibility of working time and place is much more important. Against the background of giving personnel a professional future prospect and a secure job, STEAG now offers its maintenance services on the market. The company “STEAG Technischer Service GmbH” has been operating since the begin­ning of September 2013 with about 600 employees that offer comprehensive maintenance measures in the area of energy and electrical engineering.

The power plant sites have to accept that maintenance personnel are no longer based at one site but that personnel has to fluctu­ate.

Conclusion: “Moaning doesn´t help – and those who don´t fight have lost already”. Therefore we have to accept the challenges of the changed market conditions and have to face them with intelligence, creativity and know-how that we have acquired for decades.

With the increasing extension of renewables and the phasing out of nuclear power, the important role of conventional power plants for supply security will become even clearer over the next years.

It can be assumed that due to the continuous supplyof control energy and increasing redispatch demand not only politics but also physics will have a say in the issue.