A collaborative partnership

ESB engineering services manager Patrick McCarthy looks at the reasons behind a successful outage at Poolbeg power station, which began just three months after the contract for a major upgrade was signed with Siemens.

Barely three months after signing the contract, a major upgrade of one of two gas turbines at Poolbeg power station in Dublin was underway. In less than six weeks it was completed, on schedule. “A success story,” is how Patrick McCarthy, ESB engineering services manager, sums it up.


Although 18 months is the optimum time for planning such an outage, on this occasion there were just three. “Given the new energy market model and capacity auctions we now have in Ireland, the timelines for investment decisions can result in a significantly reduced window in which to prepare,” explains Patrick. “It was a challenge for us as much as Siemens.”

Forensic planning was essential. One critical element of the outage preparation was the engineering visit, when Siemens technical specialists spent time on site to identify (and present to ESB) the expected findings when the unit is stripped down and the proposed mitigations. Such visits typically occur 12 to 18 months before an outage but at Poolbeg happened at the end of April, before the contract was signed. “It’s a good example of how Siemens worked flexibly with us to accommodate the fact we were a little compromised by time,” says Patrick.

He adds that ESB got a great deal from the visit. “We discussed in detail expected findings, spares and specialised tooling, and the momentum really started to build.” Patrick also valued the presence of Siemens site supervisor Johan von Thun. “His breadth and depth of experience gave us great confidence. The relationship between the two site supervisors was key to the success of the overhaul and from early on there was a very good rapport between both site teams.”

He highlights too the joined-up approach to tackling an obvious challenge: the lead times for parts. “We made sure everyone was very clear on the scope, and we were fortunate that where we couldn’t source a few of the parts we needed Siemens was able to do so.” The ability of Siemens to capitalise on good relationships with other stations was a bonus for ESB.

“Had we needed it, specialist tooling would have been available from Rye House. Similarly, when an issue arose during commissioning with a pump motor, Siemens lined up two parallel solutions, one of which involved Rye House, to ensure the outage schedule wasn’t threatened. That was the partnership we wanted,” confirms Patrick. “There was no ‘us and them’ mentality. We were all in it together, just as we were when it came to safety.”

He sees safety as “all about communication and culture” and believes the ESB Safe and Sound programme aligns very well with the Siemens Zero Harm initiative. “What’s central to both programmes is that everyone is content to be challenged, to question whether we can do things more safely. That openness and engagement is really important.

“We’ve always been good at ESB at the technical side of safety – the rules and standards. But we’ve moved on in the last couple of years to ask what extra we can do. We now look much more at culture and behavioural safety and how to ensure everyone has a voice in the safety discussion. That’s the Siemens approach too.

“Siemens set very high safety standards and brought a very experienced site team. Site manager Dave Heslop was excellent and came highly recommended by staff from other stations, while site supervisor Johan von Thun was also extremely experienced and not afraid to speak his mind, which we valued.

“Unfortunately we had one LTI, which occurred whilst one of the team was accessing the exhaust of the gas turbine. Slips and trips are an inherent risk in our environment and sometimes these things happen, but otherwise the safety performance was very strong.”

Safety extends into well-being. “A blood pressure monitoring machine was brought on site for the outage and as a result one of our team and one from Siemens were sent home,” confirms Patrick. “It’s very positive that we identify any potential health issues and get everyone thinking about their well-being.

“Ahead of the outage getting underway there was a safety kick-off meeting for all of the contractors where we spoke about our expectations and the risks on site. We also had a stand back for safety event before the site team demobilised where we thanked everyone and focused on the commissioning phase and a different set of risks.” Free pizzas featured on both occasions; an ice cream van also put in an appearance one weekend when 99s were handed out to staff and contractors. “It’s all part of building the team and positive engagement.”

For Patrick, the safety partnership between ESB and Siemens set the tone for the rest of the outage. “We had the same shared goals: to deliver safely and on time. We wanted to see a collaborative partnership and that’s what we got.”

Collaboration is a word that often comes up. One example relates to work on the compensator on the exhaust duct, part of the critical path. ESB had asked Siemens to take on a piece of work they’d originally intended to do themselves, and Siemens was struggling to mobilise resources. “We were able to offer Siemens two of our own guys to ensure everything stayed on track. It’s just one instance of how well we worked together to deliver on time.”

Openness is a quality Patrick sets great store by. “Whenever there was a technical issue, Siemens was very forthcoming. Everyone was aware of everything and discussions were always very open. Mick Barker and Ged Henretty, from their technical sales and project management perspectives, established that attitude early on and it stood us in good stead.”

No major problem arose in an outage he describes as very successful. “The main challenge was keeping up the pace day-to-day. There’s a cycle of finding an issue, understanding it, deciding on the repair, giving the green light and ploughing on. For that to work really smoothly over six weeks you need good communication and detailed proposals, and that’s what we had from Siemens.

“There were no major findings but a lot of findings that required significant repairs. Siemens had to present us with the options and consider what was in our best interest, so that we could agree a timely way forward.

“We had daily meetings and four-hourly updates to pre-empt any issues as far as possible. With all the findings there could easily have been delays, but every effort was made to ensure that didn’t happen.”

Dealing with the unexpected is second nature to site teams. The day the rotor was due to go back in, one of the team saw signs of subsidence in an area of tarmac that the lorry transporting it was due to drive over. A huge pit was found underneath and had to urgently be excavated, filled and re-tarmacked. “We use the term ‘good catch’ here,” says Patrick. “That was a proper good catch.”

Commitment and ownership are qualities he witnessed throughout. “Some of our guys have been here since the plant was built. It’s their unit and they want to get it back operating to the highest standard. This outage has been about securing the future of this plant on the Poolbeg peninsula.

“To deliver on schedule given the short planning time was a real achievement. It looked too challenging, and I wouldn’t want this timescale to be the norm, but we proved it can be done,” says Patrick. He reflects on the future of the second unit at Poolbeg. “Several decisions have to be made before deciding to overhaul our other gas turbine, but this experience is certainly a good building block.”

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