In Praise of Boiler EngineersVictor Rodgers | May 05, 2016
Introducing myself as a boiler engineer to the new neighbor returned a blank stare followed by her asking “aren’t those the same as hotel maintenance guys?” Feeling somewhat misunderstood, I felt it necessary to explain my profession as I’ve done many times before. I clarified I was a coal-fired power plant boiler engineer. The boilers are almost 200 feet tall and contain hundreds of miles of tubing with steam drums as big as school buses. Each boiler generates enough steam to drive a turbine which spins a generator producing electricity for over a half million homes.
I inform her of my formal engineering education along with the fact that I like “getting my hands dirty.” Ever since Thomas Edison fired up the first coal boiler at Manhattan’s Pearl Street Station in 1882, boiler engineers have played a critical role in ensuring “the lights stay on.” Her eyes and mouth immediately enlarged as she stated “Wow! That’s amazing……I never knew!”
In “power plant-speak,” boiler engineers, not to be confused with stationary engineers, HVAC technicians, boiler inspectors or “hotel maintenance guys,” are technical experts who oversee all issues specific to utility boilers. They conceive, plan and execute the proper inspections, maintenance and repair activities at the correct times to ensure efficient, reliable and safe steam generation.
The boiler engineer must be knowledgeable in several areas to include combustion, metallurgy, welding, chemistry, non-destructive inspection, budgeting and project management. Their expertise comes from years of hands-on experience identifying mechanisms and root causes of failure, managing large component replacement projects, performing remaining useful life calculations or engineering effective welding repairs.
In particular, they’re happy crawling into small access doors to negotiate the dark, hot and ash-laden confined spaces between tubing components. All the while, donning jumpsuits, kneepads, hardhats and eye protection, their flashlight beams seek subtle and obscure signs of current or future problems. Boiler tube failures are the leading cause of unplanned outages, making the boiler engineer critical to reliable power generation.
This all sounds interesting, but it seems boiler engineers are becoming a rarer commodity than the plants that employ them. It’s no secret that coal-fired power plants are going away and being replaced by natural gas generation, particularly combined-cycle gas plants which deliver reduced emissions and fuel savings potential.
Combined-cycles use both gas and steam turbines to produce up to 50% more electricity than traditional simple-cycle gas plants. Almost 200 coal plants shut down in the last 10 years with many still in the queue. The U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed that 2015 natural gas combined-cycle utilization surpassed that of coal plants, for the first time ever. This trend is only expected to continue with intensifying environmental pressures and the enduring shale gas revolution.
Most currently operating U.S. coal plants are 40 – 50 years old and their talent pool is largely ageing, as well. From plant operators to machinists, welders, and engineers, power plants are experiencing a one-two punch of retirements and talent shortages. A tremendous amount of “tribal” knowledge, unwritten information intrinsic to specific plants, is walking out the door. For the coal plants already shuttered, many of their former engineers retired early, marketed their skills to competing industries or pursued different career paths altogether.
To add to the supply shortage, a power plant career isn’t high on the list for newly minted engineers. Although boiler engineers are paid well, today’s graduates seek jobs in alternative energy, biotech and all things digital. The newer generation is enchanted by robots and drones, not steam traps. The perception of crawling through the boiler of a “dirty” coal plant is no longer attractive, fashionable or politically correct.
Heat recovery steam generators (HRSGs) are boilers placed downstream of gas turbines. They absorb exhaust heat and make steam for a nearby steam turbine to generate extra power. HRSGs enable the combined cycle to be the most efficient power generation system available today. Akin to their large coal-fired uncles, HRSGs are affected by similar failure mechanisms and suffer forced outages. In particular, many HRSGs are asked to cycle as frequently as every day in order to catch power sale opportunities.
Cycling induces stressors that exacerbate or activate potential failure mechanisms. An additional HRSG vulnerability hinges upon the Grade 91 material from which its tubing and external steam piping was likely fabricated. Grade 91 steel is sensitive to metallurgical variations and heat treatment, which can accelerate creep cracking among other issues.
All of this points to the fact that boiler engineers, albeit a vanishing breed, remain in demand. Coal is still responsible for one-third of all electricity produced and it’s not going away any time soon. The more than 200 coal plants still in existence in the U.S. are largely running continuously, at break-neck production, thus more susceptible to failure mechanisms while at the same time being averse to outages. Coal plants continue to require repairs and upgrades. The greatest opportunities for boiler engineers, however, exist among HRSGs. As they rack up operating hours and cycles, a growing need exists for timely inspections and repairs. New HRSG construction also demands boiler engineering expertise.
Coal plant losses are gas plant gains. Just as turbine engineers, plant operators and instrumentation technicians have made the jump from coal to gas, so too can boiler engineers (a.k.a. HRSG engineers).
But where are the new engineers coming from to fill voids as an ageing workforce continues to retire? Unfortunately, few good answers exist. But one thing is clear: Not all well-paying jobs are to be found exclusively in an office environment working with computers and the internet. There’s honor and value in being “mechanically-inclined.”