Energy and Natural Resources

Automation Is Engineering the Jobs Out of Power Plants

03 August 2017

As coal-fired electric power plants close across the U.S., they take with them coal mining jobs, to be sure. And while those job losses have generated considerable political heat, a no-less important employment shift is underway within power plants themselves.

Gone are many of the mechanics, millwrights and welders who once held high-paying jobs to keep coal-fired power plants operating.

As maintenance-intensive coal-fired power plants—chock full of rotating equipment and leak-prone pipes and valves, not to mention conveyor belts and coal ash handling equipment—are retired, they are being replaced to a large extent by gas-fired units that make full use of sensors, predictive maintenance software and automated control systems.

As a result, the extensive use of analytics and automation within natural gas-fired power plants means that staffing levels can be cut to a fraction of what they were a decade ago.

Recent announcements confirm the trend.

On August 1, Michigan-based DTE Energy revealed plans to spend almost $1 billion to build a 1,100-megawatt (MW) gas-fired power plant. When the station enters service in 2022, it will replace three existing coal-fired units that currently employ more than 500 people. Job openings at the new gas-fired plant? Thirty-five full-time employees, says a DTE spokesperson.

In late June, Louisiana regulators approved a plan by New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. to build a 994-MW gas-fired combined cycle power plant. The $872 million plant and associated transmission assets are slated to enter service in 2020. Job openings when it comes on line? No more than 31 people to manage, operate and maintain the plant. Read more.

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