Minding the Fleet
George Wackerhagen, vice president of Plant Operations and Technical Services for NAES Corp., has more than 30 years experience operating and maintaining power generation assets across a wide spectrum of technologies and fuels. He currently leads plant operations for 120 some facilities that NAES Corp. operates and maintains on behalf of its clients. With 400-plus MWs of biomass power already in its portfolio, NAES and Wackerhagen have established a significant presence in the industry. The team is now looking to grow its market share in the advanced biofuels space as conversion technologies are proven at pilot-scale and new facilities create a need for experienced operators.
You’ve spent the bulk of your career in energy generation. Where did you get your start?
After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, I spent the first part of my career in design, operation and maintenance of electrical systems, focusing on reliability, capital improvements and customer service in a large utility. I moved into the merchant generation field in the mid-’90s and ultimately lead operations and maintenance (O&M) for a variety of power facilities and technologies around the world. I accepted the opportunity to join NAES and the O&M organization in 2009. I had watched NAES grow significantly during this time, and knew they were a global market leader and one of the best in the business. And, I love the O&M business and the challenges of operating more than 100 facilities and multiple technologies around the world.
What aspect of energy generation has changed the most since you began your career?
Clearly, the efforts to deregulate the industry and the fits and starts of this evolving reality has changed the business markedly during the last 20 years. The industry has gone from the rate-base staid utility model to one with very smart, innovative investors who view risks in different ways through new economic lenses ground by regional market signals. Contributing to this change is the evolution of new innovations in fuels and technologies in conventional generation, and by interest in renewables as the industry seeks to produce more environmentally friendly energy with a wider variety of fuels.
What has been the biggest contributor to the growth of NAES Corp. since 2002 when it had fewer than 20 operating facilities in its portfolio compared to nearly 120 now?
The short answer is that there are really two major contributors. The first is the external market, which became increasingly complex and forced companies to operate in areas where they had limited expertise. The result was a significant need within the industry to outsource to companies whose models were built on transparency, owner-alignment and being exceptional at one thing. The second is more specific to NAES and stems from our laser-like focus on providing flawless operations and maintenance to facilities so that our clients can focus on what they do best. We are firm believers in the concept that if you can’t be best in the world at something, you shouldn’t be doing it.
We are also focused on taking advantage of our fleet size. This pays dividends to our customers in terms of purchasing power. By connecting facilities of similar technologies, needs, or problems, we are better able to quickly discern and solve issues, which pay dividends in performance. Our biomass managers routinely talk with one another and with in-house technical experts about specific problems. We also see interaction between coal and other conventional boiler plant personnel as well due to the use of common technologies in plant systems. It is the advantage of connecting to others and being part of a virtual fleet.
NAES operates virtually all types of generation facilities including biomass power facilities. What are the challenges unique to biomass power facilities?
We’ve been operating biomass facilities for 25 years and you don’t have to go far to see the unique challenges in biomass. It starts with the fuel; supply price and quality, delivery and handling, the works. Weather affects the biomass fuel supply from the gathering process right on through the combustion process. There are also significant technological differences among facilities. The types of boilers can have a major impact on day-to-day operations as well as routine and annual maintenance requirements. We create different boiler management plans for facilities that would otherwise appear similar in scale and scope.
We are also working with many late-stage developers in the commercialization of second-generation biomass-to-fuels plants. These are innovative, but also unproven technologies at commercial-scale. The result is that there are significant unknowns in terms of their actual operational and maintenance profiles so it will take the whole of our experience and infrastructure to support their success.
In our industry there is a lot of
discussion about modifying coal plants to cofire biomass. Operationally, how feasible is this? Is it more likely that we’ll see a migration to completely reconfiguring for biomass like the Drax Power Station facility in the U.K.?
In our experience today, we see many facilities in the process of cofiring or switching from coal to biomass with fairly simple changes in fuel handling, boiler front, and controls. With the significant pressure on coal, we expect to see conversions to exclusive biomass fuel continuing, supporting both the renewable mandates in states and regions as well as limiting capital investments in emissions control equipment as required in a coal operation. We have some clients that are in the process of completing coal-to-biomass conversions for these reasons.
After a planned outage for maintenance, is there an appreciable difference in efficiency and output at a facility, or is maintenance performed predominantly to extend the life of the parts and pieces in a given facility?
We always have our eyes on efficiency as it tells you a lot about the shape of your facility both before the outage and after a maintenance outage. It can tell you if you have accomplished what you set out to do. But in a biomass facility, much of an outage is about replacing or refurbishing worn parts. Ultimately, with an expert job in the outage, we expect to attain improvements in efficiency and reliability.
What percentage of the work performed during a scheduled maintenance outage arises from something discovered during an inspection of the plant once it is idled?
We are clearly working to plan maintenance in a biomass facility using observation, performance and predictive programs such as vibration monitoring, oil testing and thermography to identify the appropriate scope of work for an outage. Obviously, the more we can predict and plan, the smoother and more effectively the outage will go. We are working to reduce the unplanned work in the outage to less than 10 percent.
NAES recently rehabilitated two smaller biomass facilities in California. Where do you begin in your efforts to bring a facility back into production?
When NAES takes on the operation and maintenance of a facility, we look immediately at problems that are affecting those things most important to our customers and those things that produce the most value for our customer’s dollar. Often this includes an analysis of all single points of failure with a corresponding assessment and evaluation of what can be done to fix the problem. The team at the facility is supported by NAES technical staff to find the best solutions to the problems. We are also able to draw on experiences at other facilities with similar problems for potential solutions. While facilities may have significant differences, there can often be similarities at a system or subsystem level where other facility expertise can help. We have to drive performance.