Technical Article

Power Plant Operations: The Journey From Entry Level to Senior Operator

June 04, 2024 by Munir Ahmad

When beginning a new career, an obvious question is how to take positive steps, from your first day inside the plant all the way to becoming an experienced senior operator.

The advancement of a power plant operator primarily depends upon an individual’s attitude toward improving performance techniques and a demonstrated ability to handle operating problems as they arise. A supervisor generally assigns added responsibilities to those who have shown they can handle them. Individuals who prove themselves capable and can handle issues as they arise will eventually be allowed to assume added responsibility.


Operator looking at a computer in a powerplant

Figure 1. Plant operators spend much time in modern plants simply monitoring the data from a SCADA network. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


What Does a Power Plant Operator Do?

We are so used to a reliable and uninterrupted supply of electricity for our everyday needs that it comes as a surprise when it is suddenly not there. The power plant operators control the power plant machinery that generates the electricity and monitor vital power plant equipment functions such as generators, transformers, governors, boilers, turbines, exciters, etc. They direct the system’s output to meet constantly changing power demands and concurrently monitor the instruments to ensure electricity flows from the plant to the consumer safely.

This is increasingly done with an industrial control system (ICS) like SCADA/DCS. Plant operators spend most of their time in a control room, while auxiliary equipment operators move around the plant to check valves, switches, pumps, pressure, temperature, and level gauges, spot abnormal sounds, and ensure that all equipment operates efficiently and properly.

The most desirable individuals from whom to select operators are those who have shown their desire to advance through the study of operator lessons and other available literature, training, and continuous service.

This article will outline the procedure to enable a junior plant operator to become acquainted with the job and the equipment they will be required to handle and explain the steps to advance a professional throughout a career.


The New (Entry-Level) Operator

The entry-level job requirements may vary from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree, but these jobs all require extensive on-the-job technical training. An understanding of mechanical and electrical concepts and mathematical ability are necessary. Potential candidates must pass background checks and drug and alcohol screenings.

The first work of the new operator will be to act as a student under a veteran junior or more senior operator. The experienced operator will first orient the new user to the plant, explaining each piece of equipment, its purpose, when used, why it is used, and give specific operating directions. The operator should take notes on operation and maintenance particulars that are within the operator’s jurisdiction and will usually be provided with a book of rules or a standard operating procedure (SOP) for proper plant operation and maintenance.


Supervisor and entry-level powerplant operator

Figure 2. Entry-level and junior operators may spend plenty of time working with a more experienced operator. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


The new operator should learn, as soon as possible, how to perform these duties and why they should be done in a certain way. A moderate understanding of all equipment, its purpose, shortcomings, and how to prevent faulty operation is necessary. In simple words, they should know what to do in case of failure of any piece of equipment, visualize any damage that might occur, and learn how to repair, replace, or omit damaged equipment in an emergency.


The Junior Operator

When the junior operator is granted a first promotion, work will be fairly similar, but responsibilities will be increased. Junior operator duties will include responsibility under the operator for certain prescribed sections of the power plant. The extent of maintenance expected in this position will vary for different-sized plants.

The junior operator should first learn the range limits of temperature, pressures, and loading characteristics and become familiar with the instructions in manuals and plant instruction books. The information in all these books should be understood and the pertinent points memorized. This point is essential because when the information is required, it often is needed for immediate use, allowing very little time, if any, to study it and make a decision.

After several cases of solving issues in which a junior participates, they will become operating conscious, that is, beginning to seek answers as to why to do or not do certain things.


Experienced operator reviewing instruments

Figure 3. More experienced operators will understand the implications of various sensor measurements and be able to participate in troubleshooting. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


The Power Plant Operator

When the junior operator receives a promotion to plant operator, they will be expected to handle all the cases of trouble and adopt a system of anticipating the individual. A good operator will attempt to anticipate the results of every action, which requires extensive background knowledge, usually from experience.

The efficient operator will correct load changes, voltage changes, temperature adjustments, and other routine operating procedures to a predetermined level based on previous experience and requirements. In cases where an unusual or abrupt change is expected, they should foresee the result and adjust the machine or system in reverse to minimize the undesirable effects in time and magnitude. The supervisor depends on the operator to handle the plant and system to improve the organization’s name and efficiency.

The plant operator can act as an information officer because of the historical knowledge of the system and plant operations that can be disseminated to anybody seeking information. A synopsis of the major happenings, if any, which would benefit the succeeding operator should be transmitted during shift change, as this will prevent breaking the information chain.


Powerplant operators adjusting a control valve

Figure 4. Many sensitive adjustments and tuning processes are reserved for senior operators with more experience. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


The Senior Operator

After an operator has demonstrated his ability to perform the above duties satisfactorily, they will finally become eligible to become a senior operator. On accepting the position of senior operator, further responsibilities are added, such as checking operating records and plant maintenance. They must still perform the duties of any operator and assist when required. They should be familiar with plant and system drawings, be able to locate problems from drawings and take the initiative in all plant regulation, operation, and maintenance procedures.

Almost all power plant installations require at least one supervisor with experience similar to that of a senior power plant operator. Senior operators generally have two paths to follow: continuing in the generation department or adjusting to an operating and dispatching channel.

Fulfilling the duties of a powerhouse foreman includes developing the ability to direct operators and maintenance crews in plant operation, maintenance, repair, and adjustment of all equipment, and taking full responsibility for the plant and its decisions.


Path To Success

Each plant and facility is different and will have varying rules for promotions, responsibilities, and advancement. Still, these general principles will help someone understand how to become a more successful applicant for such elevated duties.

When someone has sufficient experience in electrical, mechanical, maintenance, or some related field, they will be better able to demonstrate quality. With sincere application and effort, they can apply this experience to power plant operations.

However, for someone who has worked only in an unrelated field, there will likely be a steep learning curve to develop an aptitude for operating. However, if successful in the initial entry stage, hard work in both effort and study can still lead to success in becoming a good operator.