Lifelong Lessons in Reliability and Safety

Derek Parkin, CLP Holdings Chief Operating Officer (COO), vividly remembers an early lesson in the importance of reliability and safety. Born into a coal mining family in the north of England, he landed his first job as a 16-year-old schoolboy cleaning the floors of the offices at a coal mine.

He was sweeping the floor one day in what seemed like a mundane chore when his boss told him to use dampened sawdust to stop dust from contaminating vital safety lamps and protective masks. “Derek, don’t think about this as just sweeping the floor. Think about it as saving a life, because by sweeping the floor properly and keeping the dust down so it doesn’t affect this very valuable equipment, you will save somebody’s life,” his boss told him.

“That lesson has stayed with me all my life,” Derek reflects.

On the coalface

At 18, Derek followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by working on the coalface. He then went to university and returned under the mentorship of the deputy chairman of British Coal. He was put on a fast-track to management by being sent abroad to coal-mining countries including Australia, China, India, South Africa, Russia, Columbia and Indonesia. When he returned to the UK four years later, he was made manager of a coal mine. “I was a young man and I had 1,000 highly unionised people working for me and lots of responsibility,” he says. “It was a great learning experience.”

Coal mining was a family tradition for Derek (back row, second from left) until the 1980s when he went into the construction industry and later the power business

Coal mining went into steep decline in the mid-1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Sensing the end of the traditional industry, Derek switched to construction, working as an engineer on the Channel Tunnel project, which connects the UK with France, and later moving to Hong Kong for the iconic Chek Lap Kok airport project.

He worked on a succession of tunnel and airport construction projects in Japan, Australia, and the UK before he was approached by E.ON UK to join the Executive Board. E.ON UK was of a similar size to the Hong Kong business of CLP at the time. “This was my first power generation job,” he recalls. He then went on to run E.ON’s new build and engineering business in Europe across 26 countries for five years before joining CLP in 2015.

Engineering a brighter future

As COO, Derek recognises that the function of Group Operations has a special role to play in contributing to CLP’s “Focus ∙ Delivery ∙ Growth” strategy. His responsibility is to make sure our assets perform to the highest levels of safety, environmental performance, availability and efficiency. He believes that it can only be achieved if people are motivated, capable and inspired to deliver.

“Only when we are successful in delivering in the focused area, do we get the right to grow,” he says.

Technology also helps. In the past, power plant engineers relied on condition monitoring methods such as vibration monitoring, and pressure and temperature sensors to identify premature failures. Some even claim they could tell by the sound of things if anything needed attention. Today, with a growing digital and big data capability, new systems have been developed with tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, empowering engineers to do their job effectively and efficiently without having to rely on intuition alone.

The latest technologies are adopted at Castle Peak Power Station to enhance the boiler’s efficiency

“We are currently trialing some equipment health systems at a number of our plants to detect premature failure of critical components and reduce unplanned disruption,” Derek explains. “Implementing these trials raises our knowledge and understanding on reliability and many performance aspects of our equipment and plant systems.”

For example, the low-voltage cable network is one of the most important elements in providing a stable electricity supply but the monitoring of network problems can be a tedious, manual task. With the availability of sensor data and new analytics tools and algorithms, monitoring can be done automatically, allowing engineers to better manage the cable network in a timely and responsive manner that prevents outages.

The Castle Peak Power Station, meanwhile, has just completed a trial to improve its boiler efficiency and reduce wear and tear through the use of optimisers. The trial enhances fuel combustion through self-learning capability and carries out soot-blowing by tapping the power of an intelligent system. Trials are also being conducted on our renewable assets in Mainland China and India. It is early days but some promising results are beginning to emerge.

Increasing reliability

Derek believes there is an element of trial and error in identifying the right technologies. He says it is critical to establish a consistent and reliable testing regime so the value of new tools can be evaluated and we must adopt the "fail fast, move on" approach.

Reliability is not just about having the confidence of a smooth running plant, it is about trying to identify and predict failures and interruptions to operations. “You need to time your outages to suit the requirements of the market,” he explains.

“Having a plant that is 98% available but lost 10% of value in that 2% when the plant was not available is sub-optimal. Reliability is about absolute readiness to perform whether that be from an operational, safety, environmental or security perspective. What I am looking for is a clear indication that we are managing our outages and optimising our performance and that is the key.”

Transformational changes

While each individual initiative may have its own contribution, it is important to understand that the whole is greater than the sum of parts, Derek argues. “Take load forecast for instance, which is closely related to weather events,” he says. “Having a clearer, better, and longer-term understanding of weather events and the behaviour of our customers helps in our load prediction and therefore allows us to better manage our outages and overall performance of the plants.”

“Hong Kong is gearing towards a reduced carbon footprint and more renewable energy. When these new sources of energy are fed onto the system, utility companies will need more information to better understand the different impacts so as to optimise the overall system,” he says.

“That is why our journey is so important as we improve our system from an optimisation and efficiency point of view,” he points out. “It will help us to better understand our assets, the requirements of our customers, the market in which we operate, and therefore the energy system of the future. It is a vital part of the total transformation toward a utility of the future.”

Derek, whose childhood dream was to become a professional football player, finds a work-life balance through sports

A Footballer’s Dream

Derek was an outstanding young footballer and his childhood dream was to become a professional player. However, a serious injury at the age of 14 forced him to give up his favorite sport and focus on his academic studies.

Afterwards, he did not play any sports until he took up squash at university and made such progress that he became a county-level player within 18 months. Derek went on to play at national level, taking part in tournaments in Holland and Germany.

Derek was an avid squash player until he recently switched to tennis. Even after all these years, however, Derek says his two biggest loves in life are football and his family.

Reflecting on the injury that ended his young dreams, Derek said: “It taught me the importance of health and wellbeing and that life is fragile. Without your health, your dreams remain dreams and everyday events can change our lives forever.”