Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 7/2015

Maintenance in the interplay of the liberalised electricity market and the restructuring of coal based power generation

The “Energiewende” (energy transition) calls for a structural change, in which the total phase-out of coal is not only a topic, but a concrete objective. The discussion about possible future scenarios leads to uncertainty. The employees of the power plants and external contractors both fear a loss of sustainability of employment due to the discussions on the future of coal. Terms such as ‘dirty’ power plants or ‘climate killers’ bluntly repeated like a prayer wheel by politicians and journalists in newspapers and television, set the collective of coal workers in a social offside and labelling them as the cause of a global problem. Maintenance is particularly affected by these uncertainties, because permanent change processes arising due to the multitude of companies and of the different trades between the internal and external personnel.

Opportunities arising from this restructuring are soothing on a political level, but by their theoretical expression often not suitable taking the fears of those affected. In addition, these opportunities identify potential development in other trades, thus no concrete alternatives for the maintenance staff.

The liberalised electricity market today demands flexible maintenance at high performance levels on the cost side for the conventional power plants. In the maintenance teams employees have adapted to the market induced periods of power generation and show a high degree of willingness to change. Developments show a rising profit pressure on conventional power generation and thus further customisation required on the cost side.

The maintenance concepts have changed dynamically in the past few years. The preventive and predictive maintenance methods were increasingly replaced by loss-oriented and risk-based maintenance strategies. Cost-reduction programmes have led to a concentration of resources, which complicates a substance preserving operation. Service providers are being included in the restructuring measures which specifically leads to decrease of margins and profit. Local contractors with a high share of work with a single customer are often not in a position to compensate for these changes. Prominent contractors suddenly face with very limited or even no demand of their services. The procurement of new services is increasingly difficult because companies are no longer willing to invest in the system of “coal-based power generation”. Personnel are leaving the service providers because of the uncertainty of their jobs and align with other branches of industries. Maintaining balance is difficult because due to image and the critical discussion straight young well-trained recruits find their career in other branches of industry. Increasingly, employees of personnel service providers switch jobs which again leads to shutdowns and capacity gaps in maintenance.

As a result of discontinuation of constructing new power plants, the impact of this transition on maintenance and thus on the concrete result of the company is partly compensated by capacity of the contractors and their subcontractors. It is expected that the staff reductions already announced in this industry will dynamically decrease this free capacity and thus only delay the problem on the time axis.

Due to the structural transition the corporate landscape of conventional power plants will change profoundly and still prominent service providers will no longer be available. Regardless this changing framework and a long-term decommissioning strategy, maintenance organisations and their contractors will have to adapt and at the same time they are essential for a safe and responsible operation down to the last hour of a power station.

Sustainable up keeping of maintenance capacities require new personnel concepts and strategic partnerships with external companies. It is necessary to use factual arguments to take the fears for change from colleagues and to tackle the structural transition with an open chance/risk-discussion.