King Coal is back!

April 20, 2005
In his Control Report, Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt surmises that going into coal processing control may be the kind of career opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime.
 By Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt


ant to make $100,000 a yearBecome a coal miner. According to National Public Radio (NPR), coal miner jobs are going begging. Many mines have been shut down for 50 years, but the increasing demand for coal is opening them up again. Problem is, there aren’t any coal miners left, so mines are paying top wages. According to NPR, anyone willing to work overtime can make $100,000 per year in the mines.

For the same reason, plenty of jobs will also exist for process control engineers who know how–or want to know how–to deal with coal. That’s because very few of you exist out there. Going into coal processing control may be the kind of career opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime.

Thomas Sjudajski, director, Invensys Global Power Marketing explains. “During the '90s, most new electric generation capacity was via gas-fired, combined-cycle plants. Many engineers who have spent the last 10 years in power generation have never worked on a coal plant. Consequently, the ‘tribal’ knowledge has not been passed on to many of the engineers who will be working on this new generation of plants.”

Al Novak, business development manager of new coal-fired generation for Emerson Process Management, experience goes back even farther: “Over the last 25 years or so, there has been little to no new coal-fired plant construction. Because new coal plant construction in the United States was dormant for so long, this coal comeback presents some challenges for plant designers, engineers and operators.”

Loss of process knowledge is a problem everywhere, as we discuss in the April cover story, "How to Run a Plant When Expertise is Lost," but it looks to be even more severe in coal. “One notable challenge is ‘brain drain’ caused by the retirement of those who have experience designing coal plants,” says Novak. Another consideration: “The majority of proposed plants will utilize new technologies that did not exist when most current plants were originally built and commissioned. These two factors have implications for the design and ongoing operation of new coal-fired plants.”

Roger A. Leimbach, director of Marketing & Applications at Metso Automation, agrees. “Coal-fired supercritical steam generators require unique control strategies, unlike any other boilers, and process control engineers will be called upon to implement them,” he says.

In a nutshell, King Coal is back with a vengeance, and there are only a few control engineers who know how to deal with it. You could be one of them because, even if you don’t know coal control yet, you know all the other advanced control techniques that will be needed, such as asset management. “A significant area of activity is fleet-wide asset management for power generation companies, says Jil Shingledecker, project manager, Siemens Westinghouse Power. “These companies are optimizing their generating assets from fleet and plant standpoints.” 

And there should be plenty of jobs. “In North America there are now 96 proposed new coal-fired plants, representing $69 billion in investment,” says Novak. That doesn’t include all the old plants being modernized, or the explosive growth in Australia and China, which are building coal-fired plants in record numbers. “The power generation controls market in China is estimated to total $120 million annually, with projected double-digit growth,” notes Novak.
That’s a lot of control systems being installed, and they will all need your kind of experience. Fortunately, it looks like many of the control systems being installed are the same as in process control, so you should be right at home. For example, Foxboro is installing I/A Series controls in coal plants in New Mexico, Wisconsin and China. “We have always used our standard DCS platform for electric utility projects over the last 25 years,” adds Mark Converti, Honeywell Process Solutions Power Generation marketing manager.

Control systems for coal plants are multi-million-dollar systems. Honeywell, for example, is installing a $10 million control system in China. And they are being built by big, solid companies. “Most new coal fired plants will be built by investor-owned utilities that can shoulder the large financial risk (up to $1.5 billion) and long lead time to design and build large coal-fired generating units,” says Leimbach. That would be a good company to work for, one not likely to lay you off.

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