I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal. Don’t just take my word for it. The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant. Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest. It was no wonder to me.
The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States. This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains. The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee. After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.
The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it. On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.
I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.
A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country. This time they gave us Denim shirts. Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell. The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997 Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.
In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us. He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did. Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated. He wanted to learn our secret. The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.
Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop. He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning. He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers. I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.
I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant. Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.
The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen. He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency. I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.
I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop. I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else. Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity. I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me. It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).
Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant. It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.” The precipitator.
The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined. It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack. That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running. When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.
The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity. That is, how much do the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack. We tried to keep the opacity below 5%. I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant. You would be able to see the smoke.
The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash. Like I said, it used a lot of electricity. Megawatts of power. The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power. Practically none. If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill. This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy. It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash. A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.
We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity. When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes. I said Kilowatts) of power. This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.
To put this in perspective. One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load. The opacity was almost 0%.
Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%. Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor. He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack. No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack. The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air. — I know… I know… impossible… right?
I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal. We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur. This made it more challenging.
I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager. This was my baby, and I was proud of it. Only, Mark never showed up.
One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them. So, I walked up to him. I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators. I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.
I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator. He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system. He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls. He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that. — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient. I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.
Oh well, I thought… This would just be our plant’s little secret. No one else seems to want to know about it.
At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings. He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah. We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.
The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here. The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00. They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon. They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little). He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time. 6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.
In England, this was impossible. When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work. They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up. Almost an hour to clean up at the end of the day. In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers. Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.
Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs. I will paraphrase what Mark told us: He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job. They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work. In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job. Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant. In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.
Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves. He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better. They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.
As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him. Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly. I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England. I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark. I wish I had.
Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.
I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:
Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.
Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England. The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce. I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.
There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there. Something you are not going to find just anywhere. The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet. They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.
Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees. I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family. Kudos to you all.