COVID-19 has thrown up a range of challenges – some well understood, others still emerging. For the energy sector, the safety of its workforce and contractors is paramount, so minimising the risk of COVID-19 spread has been a daily focus since the pandemic began. At the same time, with energy an essential service, the industry has ensured this intense focus on workforce safety has not resulted in interruption to energy supply.
The sector has put in place contingency plans to maintain the security of supply and has worked closely with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), as well as other relevant regulators and government.
AEMO and participants in the gas and electricity markets have been authorised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to cooperate on measures to secure Australia’s energy supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authorisation allows energy industry participants to share essential personnel, essential inputs such as parts and equipment, and information about the operation of their facilities.
It’s recognition that every part of the energy supply chain will face challenges. For generators a substantial challenge is to undertake upgrades or major works, while ensuring risks are carefully managed and timelines can still be met to ensure supply availability.
Undertaking major work on power plants is a logistical and challenging process at any time, but COVID-19 has exerted extra pressure on plants to put in place additional control measures.
A major upgrade of the 525MW Unit 1 at Alinta’s Loy Yang B power station has provided good insight into the additional precautions and stretch measures required to manage those additional risks. Loy Yang B has met regularly with other generators to share ideas and findings on COVID-19 mitigation and been able to draw on the experience of the Yallourn Power Station, which is also undertaking a major outage.
The Loy Yang B upgrade will increase the capacity of the unit by 42MW and is the final of the major upgrades to the power station’s two coal-fired units. The latest work involves an estimated 45-day outage.
Loy Yang B’s General Manager, Tony Hicks, said the team pulled out all stops to manage the COVID-19 risk. “Our team has done an incredible job to ensure our site is equipped and ready for what will be the equal largest scope of work we have ever completed in our power station’s history,” he said.
The work involves an upgrade of the Unit 1 turbine and replacement of the generator and turbine control system.
The upgrade commenced last week and involves bringing an additional 500-strong contract workforce on to the site. Loy Yang B has an existing workforce of 162 people, including around 20 business support staff working remotely.
Most of the additional contract labour has been drawn from the Latrobe Valley and Gippsland and the upgrade has also required the involvement of several overseas technical experts. This required Loy Yang B to have the six specialists quarantined for 14 days in Sydney before they could travel to site. This included two from GE in the UK, another specialist from Switzerland (to oversee the installation of new generation circuit breaker) and three technical advisors from Japan who will assist the contractor Downer with the generator stator and rotor installation.
Key measures to minimise risks from the coronavirus include requiring workers to stay home if they feel unwell, maintain physical distancing, hand hygiene. But in a complex work environment how do you ensure this happens, while maintaining safety measures and maintaining a demanding work schedule to ensure supply ahead of the peak summer period?
Steps put in place at Loy Yang B have included:
To segregate work crews, limit interaction with other groups as much as possible, and support physical distancing a range of measures have been implemented at the site.
Splitting of crews
The plant has split operations crews into two teams to ensure there is no crossover of staff on any given shift and to ensure they have appropriately skilled crew available in the event of the need for isolation of staff. An additional plant control location was also established with the duplication of control panels.
A team of key maintenance staff and engineers from across the operation were segregated from crews to ensure the right mix of relevant skills would be available in the event of self-isolation being required. Other maintenance personnel and essential staff were relocated across the site to allow for effective physical distancing. Those who can work from home are being supported to allow this occur.
The site can usually accommodate around 320 maintenance contractors in a designated contractor amenities building, which includes shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. To ensure physical distancing and also in meeting WorkSafe’s guidance of four square meters per person, alternate housing arrangements had to be established. This involved:
A major challenge was managing personnel movements via lifts to and from the job sites was an additional challenge given the confined space and need for physical distancing.
In normal circumstances the additional workforce would represent a logistical challenge during a major outage, with the additional contract workforce and regulator workforce having access to only two lifts in the power station’s boilerhouse and one external lift to the turbine floor. The boilerhouse lifts allow a maximum load limit of 32 people at a time - less when moving tools and equipment - to travel up and down the power station’s 20 floors.
The lift limits have been restricted to 10 people per lift to assist with physical distancing. To overcome the potential for bottlenecks to occur and a consequence impact on the work schedule, two building construction-type lifts have been installed and staffed on site.
To reduce pressure on lifts, canteen services and temperature testing stations, and avoid peak periods, the site has staggered start, finish and break times to take the pressure off lifts, temperature testing and canteen services at what would usually be peak times.
The required permit allocation has also been moved from the unit control room to a central location to make permit issuing easier and safer, and the addition of temporary permit board lock on locations have been placed throughout the plant.
The additional measures to mitigate COVID-19 have cost approximately $2 million. Alinta’s experience is just one of countless examples where the industry has had to dramatically change work practices and absorb resulting costs in order to safely maintain an essential service during the pandemic.
Additional accommodation introduced to Loy Yang B site to help manage COVID-19 risks
Temperature testing station installed on site
The fourth quarter of 2020 saw the NEM reach lowest average demand since Q4 2001 – with SA and Victoria’s spot prices hitting record lows. Are customers benefiting from the price suppression effects of renewable energy generation? Or is the market telling us a different story?
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