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Keeping the lights on

May 23, 2023 | Jason Kuiper | generation, Nebraska City Station
training on simulators
Tyler Long, left, and Mike Holaway recently started training on simulators at Nebraska City Station as part of their preparation to become assistant unit operators. Photo by Jason Kuiper

There are two rooms in the administration building at Nebraska City Station (NCS) that are key in keeping OPPD’s largest generating station running smoothly.

Located in the rear of the building, the two rooms are plain except for the two rows of computer screens inside.

The rooms are where the NCS unit operators use simulators to train and sharpen their skills to make sure the plant keeps putting power out for OPPD’s customers. These simulators have been in use for years and they help ensure OPPD always has enough operators able to handle any and all situations they may face.

OPPD equipment operators Tyler Long and Mike Holaway sit side by side on their first week of assistant unit operator training. The week has been a mix of classroom work, discussions and sitting at the unit one simulator going through a “cold start up.”

“The better trained we are, the better we do with running our units,” said Chris Romaire, senior instructional technician at NCS.

The simulators can help OPPD prevent a generating unit from experiencing an uplanned outage, or “trip” –  a unit unexpectedly coming offline – Romaire said. Unplanned outages can cause more than $1 million in terms of damage to the unit, lost revenue and the price of power purchased power replace the lost power.

Holaway has experience working in a control room – he previously worked as an operator at Fort Calhoun Station. He’s been with OPPD for nearly 22 years; Long has been with the utility for 10 years.

Working through (simulated) problems

On this day, the two are working on bringing the water circulation system online. They will spend nine more weeks in training for their new roles. They pay attention to the top screen, which shows the different alerts they are monitoring.

“Some of the alarms are critical alarms,” Long said. “We need to be able to recognize which ones are critical and which ones are not. This pink one shows that we have just opened a valve. It reinforces we did the right thing, but it’s also a reminder that we will have to close it eventually.”

Holaway said he and Long talk through the situations and the instructor listens to them as they work through problems.

“We are asking a lot of questions to help us understand each procedure,” Holaway said. “We have both done start ups as equipment operators, but it is different as control room operators.”

Bret Clark, senior instructional technician, said changing their thought processes will be the biggest change for the two.

Unit operators are comparable to the crew leaders in the field, Romaire said. Assistant unit operators – the role Holaway and Long are training for – are responsible for the turbine control on the unit. Each unit also has inside equipment operators who are responsible for different parts of the unit.

Learning, building camaraderie

Typical scenarios when training on simulators have two people in the room working together, one as the unit operator and the other as the assistant operator. Simulations can last for three days as participants run though various operating procedures.

“I throw situations at them and then I sit there and listen to them, paying attention to how they solve the problem,” Romaire said. “Training together on the same unit builds camaraderie as they learn together.”

training on simulators
“The better trained we are, the better we do with running our units,” said Chris Romaire, senior instructional technician at Nebraska City Station. Photo by Danielle Beebe-Iske

The “cold start up” – starting up a unit that has been offline – is a common training situation. Since generating stations like NCS don’t often go offline, a unit operator may only have to start one up – or shut it down – every few years. But they know well in advance if a future scheduled start up or shut down will be happening on their shift schedule.

“They come down here and go through the simulation so they know exactly what to expect and how to respond,” Romaire said.

Starting up a unit is a complicated endeavor.  Each unit is different, and equipment doesn’t always respond like it should, Romaire said.

There are hundreds of pieces of equipment that must be checked and then monitored by operators.

North Omaha Station (NOS) also has simulators that are unique to that station’s units.

“We’ve come a long way from the switches, knobs and charts I trained on when I went through assistant unit operator training,” Romaire said. “Back then you were sitting in a box and it was like an old-style arcade game.”

Keeping up to date

Anytime changes are made on the generating units, those changes need to be reflected on the simulators. The change could be as small as upgrading a valve graphic on the screen, but those small details are important.

“An operator should come down here and be seeing the same screens they are seeing upstairs,” he said.

Over the coming weeks, Holaway and Long will continue learning about alarm monitoring scenarios. They’ll also learn how to handle equipment running with improper valve alignments and about deviations in different areas of the unit. Romaire has hundreds of scenarios he can put into the simulation.

And operators aren’t the only employees who use the simulators. Engineers who need to make changes on a running unit will test the changes on the simulator beforehand to know how the unit will react.

OPPD understands the importance of keeping the simulators healthy, so control room operators are ready to handle any scenario that might see. And the better trained they are, the better the units will run – and that helps keep the lights on throughout the OPPD service territory.

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About Jason Kuiper

Jason Kuiper joined OPPD as a communications specialist in 2015. He is a former staff writer and reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, where he covered a wide range of topics but spent the majority of his career covering crime. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has also appeared in several true crime documentary shows. In his free time he enjoys cooking, spending time with his wife and three children, and reading crime novels.

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