The secret to high-performing power plants

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The World Energy Council has long maintained that there is a great potential for improving power plant performance worldwide. Performance benchmarking and introduction of the best operational, maintenance and management practices and techniques can help electricity producers collectively save at least US$80 billion and avoid one billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.

Now, other leading international organizations, including the G8, World Bank, International Energy Agency and others, are starting to take on board this WEC message.

The WEC estimates, based on analytical reviews and case studies, that as much as 80% of the difference between the best performing power plants and those achieving average availability is due to management practices and only 20% due to technology. The importance of good management practices is also crucial for new plants with advanced technologies to ensure that they achieve their full operational potential, otherwise benefits arising from the replacement of old equipment will be temporary.

For a utility embarking on the plant performance improvement programme, the first task is to benchmark performance of their power generating units against similar units worldwide. This requires access to a database of power plants performance indicators, and WEC makes such a database available via its website. Having pinpointed areas for improvement, plant managers can develop a range of options and use advanced economic analysis tools to select those which offer the best cost-benefit solutions. One of such analytical tools Frontier Analysis, allows plant managers to gauge the point at which a plant is performing with the best cost-benefit ratio, and then set ambitious goals to achieve this optimal level of plant availability.

Another key element of advanced plant management is condition monitoring, which can now be conducted remotely with sensors and computer automated equipment, to pick up vibrations and evaluate trends in major equipment, such as turbines. Ultrasonic and X-ray technology can flag early problems, such as water tube leaks, or detect weak areas, such as the first signs of corrosion on a pipe, which can be fixed during annual plant outages for maintenance. Early detection and repair is less costly.

"Top-performing companies are really effective in applying these techniques. These firms are also five times more likely to single out data analysis and benchmarking as a competitive advantage," said Bob Richwine a leading benchmarking expert who has served on WEC's Committee on Performance of Generating Plant since 1989.

Developing and applying the necessary operational and managerial skills worldwide can produce significant benefits and help meet future demand for energy. This is especially relevant to the developing world, where energy demand is growing fastest, and many plants are old and operating well below optimal capacity. What is even more important, without these skills, plant operators will not be able to get maximum efficiency from new plants that require more advanced know-how.

Since the conditions for assessing optimal plant performance are rooted in local circumstances, the WEC is developing procedures manuals that will incorporate best management and operational techniques. The WEC aims to help set up regional expertise centres in some of its regions, in particular in Africa and Asia, to train experts, who will in turn develop and run customised power plant personnel training programmes in a country or region.

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