My sons approached me today and said: “Dad can we turn off our lights for one hour this Saturday at 8:30 PM to support Earth Hour?” My first thought was sure, if we all turn off our lights for an hour I might even save a few coins on the electric bill this month. Earth hour has been around for 3 years now. The number of participants has grown from a city-wide event in Sydney, AU to a global event expected to have about a billion participants this year. A moment or two later the dark side of me emerged as I asked myself what happens at 9:30 PM when millions of people on power grid turn on the lights at the same time? At our home turning on the toaster and microwave at the same time causes a fuse to blow. Soon, I was questioning everything I knew about energy plants and hence this blog piece.

Energy Plant Utopia

You don’t need to be an engineer to understand the limitations of a power plant with regard to basic business economics. Power plants have two constraining factors, with regard to meeting consumer demand and energy costs. The first is capacity, which is balanced to allow for a spike in demand at any point in time. The second factor is maintaining optimal efficiency levels of turbines and other plant assets to mitigate the increased costs of energy production during periods of peak demand.

In a perfect world, utility plants would see constant demand throughout the day and night. Maintenance would become routine as the assorted preventive and predictive technologies are able to accurately predict when equipment will need repair or replacement. Energy cost per Kwh would no longer change as a result of demand and smart meters would become obsolete overnight. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The Reality

The unfortunate reality is that this will never happen. Climatic changes, seasonality of industries, the use of technology as well as numerous other factors all effect consumption. In addition, as the load varies to meet demand, turbines wind up and down. The continual changes in turbine use only adds to wear and tear.

“The efficiency of a process that uses heat to boil water, to produce steam, that drives a turbine, that produces electricity, is independent of the fuel used. Coal, nuclear and gas power plants all have the same theoretical efficiency, observed differences are due mainly to different patterns of use, particularly powering up and shutting down. If a system is on constantly (base load) it will be more efficient that one that is used intermittently(peak load).”

Source: Wikipedia

The continual change in load also decreases the accuracy of some predictive technologies as harmonic frequencies, noise and vibrations all cause varying amounts of damage. Maintenance activities become more frequent, labor costs increase, capital budgeting increases and downtime is almost inevitable.

The Plug

Preventive maintenance and inspections are crucial to maintaining optimal efficiencies for energy producers. When used in combination with an EAM/CMMS, plant maintenance management is better able to manage assets from purchase through replacement. EAM systems not only track work orders, record the historical data and increase asset lifecycle, but when implemented correctly, can be an exceptional tool for capital budget analysis. Recording historical work orders and solutions is also critical to maintaining the knowledge base of the aging plant maintenance worker.

An energy plant without a sophisticated EAM can not achieve the intended goals. This is much like Earth Hour after my son suggested we go buy candles and use them for power instead of electricity. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him how inefficient candles were or how much pollution they generate. His awareness of energy concerns was all that counted.

Tell us what your power plant is doing to reign in efficiency issues.

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