Simulation-Based Training Facility Opens, Focusing on Power Generation Industry

Who’ll keep the lights on?

As utility company executives make plans to meet the growing electricity needs of the Southeast, they’re also watching their most experienced personnel approach retirement age.  Finding enough skilled personnel to operate complex power-generation facilities poses one of the most critical challenges facing the industry today.

Collaboration between Baltimore-based GSE Systems and the Georgia Institute of Technology offers one solution: a new way of learning that combines traditional classroom training with hands-on experience using advanced computer simulations of complex industrial facilities.  Simulations have long been used to train pilots, but are relatively new to other types of industrial training.

This “learning by seeing and doing” offers utility companies a way to more rapidly meet their most critical human resources needs.

“People learn by seeing, experiencing and actually doing something,” explained Eric Johnson, senior operations training specialist for GSE Systems.  “We can reinforce what students have learned in class by allowing them to interact with a simulation of a facility.  The simulation allows them to gain experience without actually having to be in a real plant, and that helps new employees become productive faster.”

To provide that innovative learning environment, GSE has built a multi-million-dollar simulation and education center at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center in Technology Square.  The company officially opened the facility – the first of its kind in the United States – with a ceremony September 13.

The center includes more than a dozen LCD panels driven by a powerful computer to simulate the many key systems operated from the control room of an electric generating plant.  Student operators can adjust controls and immediately see the effects of their actions not only on the system they are controlling, but also on the rest of the plant.  Realistic warnings indicate potentially dangerous conditions to which the students must respond.  Three-dimensional models show the systems and exact components being controlled.

“The simulation allows plant systems to be integrated so the student operators really see the issue and understand the problems,” added Johnson.  “We can show them how to operate everything from the simplest system to the whole interrelationship of the systems.”

The new facility currently offers simulations for gas turbine and combined-cycle gas turbine generating plants.  GSE sees a major market for its “education through simulation” training, and plans to add simulations for nuclear power generating stations, petroleum refineries, desalinization plants, oil and gas platforms, distribution facilities – and perhaps more.

“Every complex entity – airports, seaports, and large production facilities – is going need simulation training to improve the work force,” said Michal Krause, director of university programs for GSE.  “I believe that with this collaboration, we are headed toward a new dimension in training and education.”

To keep its facilities running – and to staff the new ones required by growing demand for power – utility companies will have to heavily recruit and train new staff.  An estimated 40 percent of the industry’s current work force will retire in the next five years, while as many as 1,200 employees will be needed for each new nuclear power plant built.

Those employees will range from recent high school graduates who need basic industrial instruction to skilled engineers who need to learn more about the power-generation environment.  The industry also wants to diversity its work force, bringing in more women and under-represented minorities.

“Nothing in this economy runs without power, so if we are looking for continued economic growth, we’ll have to include growth in electric power generation,” Krause added. “In the Southeast alone, the electric power industry will have a work force of 100,000 over the next decade.”

Georgia Tech is contributing expertise in complex simulations as well as systems designed for augmented reality – and for wireless networking that will allow close monitoring of student operators in the facility.

“Georgia Tech is pleased to be involved with GSE Systems in the opening of the new simulation training center,” said Roger Webb, interim director of Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute.  “We view this state-of-the-art facility as potentially a great tool for teaching our Georgia Tech students about the ‘real-world’ issues involved with the generation of electricity.  In addition, we see the center as a means of increasing Georgia Tech’s involvement with the many electrical utilities that are expanding and developing in the Southeast.”

Beyond improvements for the power generation industry, the collaboration is also providing long-term economic development benefits to the state.

“Georgia Tech is helping GSE Systems improve the technological knowledge base and the quality of the power generation work force – an area of critical importance to the state, nation and world,” said Wayne Hodges, vice provost in Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute.  “As a result, GSE established a research and development operation in Technology Square, brought new high-technology jobs to the state, and will offer co-op, intern and full-time employment opportunities to our students.”

GSE operates a similar simulation training facility at Strathclyde University in Scotland.  It serves companies all around the world, including the Middle East, where it is building another center in the United Arab Emirates.

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Writer: John Toon