Engineering Tales

David tells us about his engineering graduate experiences

As a chemical engineer about to go into my final year of study, getting some industrial experience seemed like the smart thing to do and I was fortunate enough to get a place on the Centrica summer placement programme. I was placed at the Glanford Brigg generating station near Grimsby. When you’re at home you never really think about where power comes from, you just plug in your laptop, phone etc. and a little light or symbol pops up telling you that there is power available. At university power generation is summed up in neat little thermodynamic diagrams that describe the energy that is released in a turbine, with very little consideration of the equipment necessary.

Brigg is relatively small for a power station; the offices are located in front of a long tall building that looks like it could be an industrial barn. Reaching into the sky from the turbine hall are four exhaust stacks standing 70 meters high. One of the unusual things about Brigg is that it operates on a short term operating reserve (STOR) contract, essentially it can be described as a backup power station. As a result the station is paid to be available to pick up the slack in the energy production market. Not unlike in the movies when the power goes out and someone yells “Its ok there’s a backup generator!” Brigg is most likely to operate when another generating station encounters a problem and is unable to produce enough energy (or there is an unexpected change in demand) . After a week and a bit of site inductions, tours and figuring out where to find information I had a pretty good idea of what was going on at this small, quiet power station.

To get a better idea of the energy market as a whole my line manager then arranged for me to work at Killingholme generating station, which was just down the road. Killingholme is a bigger plant than Brigg and the differences were immediate. For a start it is situated next an oil refinery and power station operated by another company. After the site induction a trip up to the control room led to another big difference, the plant was actually running, giving off a satisfying, busy hum. The second day at Killingholme the plant received a bid offer acceptance (BOA) which is an instruction from National Grid to run. This provided the opportunity to see what actually goes on in the control room while the plant is starting up. With frantic clicking corresponding to valves opening and closing the levels in vessels are being maintained, a vacuum is being generated, water is being brought on site all at once. Once the gas is flowing and the turbine is up to temperature the generated electricity has to synchronize with the grid. This synchronisation is accompanied by a loud crack from the switch gear signifying that power is now being sent to the grid.

One of the aspects that fascinated me, having never really given much thought to power generation, was the politics between the operators in the control room, the National Grid and the shift traders at Centrica headquarters. The operators are responsible for making sure the plant generates what it has been asked to generate, National Grid are responsible for making sure that the energy demand of the country is met (by managing the output of generating stations across the country) and the shift traders make sure that enough power is being generated versus demand and will also monitor the gas price and send a physical notice (PN) to run when energy generation is profitable. The power station control room staff responds whether it is BOA issued by National Grid or a PN run requested by the shift traders at Windsor.

The summer placement has been an excellent opportunity to learn about the energy industry and the interactions that go on in the background while the little light on your laptop charger is illuminated.