What are the Options for Power Plant Personnel Training?

Since the opening of the “Edison Electric Light Station”, the world’s first coal-fired power plant, in London in 1882, humans have grown increasingly dependent upon a constant supply of electricity to their homes and businesses. More recently, South Africans have suffered regular reminders of the extent of that dependency by years of contending with rolling blackouts and brownouts. Although extensive new infrastructure development is already underway, the challenge of providing adequate power plant personnel training will need to be dealt with before commissioning new facilities.

Bringing a new generating station online and putting it through its paces is a complex task that requires the full attention of skilled and experienced operators. Such events are hardly the best time to risk the distraction of providing instruction to unskilled recruits. While conducting hands-on training in the workplace is a common enough practice, it is not always convenient or safe. That said, there are limits to what an instructor can achieve in a classroom, especially in a predominately practical field like power plant personnel training. So, what are the alternatives? How else could an instructor help a trainee develop the knowledge and practical skills necessary to operate a coal-fired or nuclear-powered generating station? 

Essentially, a plant manager has two possible options. One is to outsource the entire responsibility to an established third-party training organisation. The other is to conduct the necessary instruction internally, covering the practical aspects with the help of lifelike computer simulations. Let’s examine the latter option more closely. Simulators have been the mainstay of commercial pilot training for many decades. To employ the same technology for power plant personnel training is only logical.

Both occupations carry an element of risk and require operatives who can keep a clear head while handling any unexpected emergencies safely and effectively. When providing a sufficiently detailed but simulated training scenario, recruits have the opportunity to deal first-hand with both routine and emergency tasks. They are free to repeat an exercise as often as necessary until they are thoroughly confident and competent. That newcomers will make mistakes is inevitable. However, the only effect of an error in the virtual world is to reinforce the learning experience – a significant benefit of this form of power plant personnel training.

A wide range of simulated instructional programmes is available. In some cases, trainers may have the option to purchase programmes relating to a particular brand of equipment directly from the relevant manufacturer. Alternatively, they could hire a specialist to create bespoke products that meet their unique requirements. The course content may be comprehensive, displaying all of a plant’s control systems and covering every operation relating to the given plant type in minute detail. Alternatively, the scope of a simulation could be confined to an individual specified task – for example, training power plant personnel to manage the startup or shutdown procedures. 

When commissioning a specialist company to develop a virtual learning environment, a trainer will have the option to choose the depth of detail required. Performing a 3D scan of an entire plant or a selected portion of it provides the visual data from which the developer can create a true-to-life simulation almost indistinguishable from the live workplace. The programmers can then layer instructions, animations, interactive functions, questionnaires, avatars and a host of other additional features onto the 3D model as required. However, photorealistic simulations are not essential for power plant personnel training. 

For those on a tighter budget, companies can offer an alternative product created from generic objects, functions and other facilities included as standard components of some development software. A competent IT technician might even wish to order the necessary software and create such generic simulations in-house.

Each of the scenarios described so far assume that the theory instruction will be undertaken on-site by an experienced staff member. However, although knowledge and experience are essential, it also requires sound teaching skills to pass that knowledge to others. Consequently, outsourcing responsibility for theoretical and practical power plant personnel training can often prove to be the best option.

SimGenics is recognised internationally as a leading developer of world-class training simulations, with extensive knowledge and experience of the electricity generation industry and related technologies. The company’s programmes are used widely by leading power companies. Many also send trainee operators to SimGenics’ off-site training facilities that combine conventional classroom instruction with advanced simulations to provide an unparalleled experience for those undergoing power plant personnel training.

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