27th June 2019

Coal-fired thermal power plants by their very nature are exposed to difficult and hazardous operating conditions due to the combination of large pieces of equipment operating at high speeds, fuel fired equipment, large quantities of lubrication oil and ignition sources which can lead to equipment breakdown and fire incidents. The Fire Loss Prevention Forum of India (FLPFI) brings clarity into the causes and value of large losses in the global power industry.

Equipment breakdown is a major hazard in their operation due to bulk quantities of coal, fuel oils and lubricating oils, making them more prone to accidents. By understanding the risks presented by power plants, companies within the sector will have the opportunity to better identify and manage these risks, potentially preventing and mitigating future accidents and incidents.

Whilst the majority of these accidents or incidents are the result of mechanical or electrical breakdown, or human error, the consequent fires or explosions can aggravate the severity of the incident. The reality is that modern utility-class machines handle vast amounts of kinetic energy and it takes careful engineering, operation, maintenance and adherence to procedures to convert the energy into electricity. Failing to adhere to any of these measures could result in an unpredictable disaster.

Equipment breakdown is a key loss driver in the power generation industry, with turbine breakdown the most common, as evidenced by a 15-year study1. The average loss was US $24 million and the average outage was more than 24 weeks. The study also found that 52% of these incidents were caused by mechanical failure, 19% were due to the failure of oil system fitting, 19% were electrical or loss of oil, and the remaining 10% was operator error.

In two thirds of losses in the power generation industry, operator error is a contributing factor. This means that mechanical breakdown and other incidents may have an operator error component too. Pressurised fluids such as turbine lubricating, control or seal oil present a considerable fire hazard. The study concluded there was a high likelihood of fire whenever there was mineral oil under pressure, hot surfaces to ignite it and deficiencies in fire protection.

Another study carried out by an earlier wing of the Insurance Industry, Tariff Advisory Committee (TAC), for a 15-year period beginning in early 2000, looked at fire losses and fire behaviour in the electric generation industries. In that period there were 40 incidents of major fires resulting in a loss of Rs. 1,710 million, with the average loss per incident of Rs. 42.8 million. The most frequent causes were seen to be electrical and mechanical sparking and electrical short-circuit. The losses were most frequent in non-working hours between 18:00-06.00.

For example, a massive explosion at the Unchahar Power Plant on the 1st November 2017 in a newly commissioned unit of a coal fired power plant in the Uttar Pradesh state killed 34 people and injured over 80. One of the deadliest power plant accidents in recent years, an investigation by the Government owned plant operator, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), will look at possible hot ash accumulation below a newly installed boiler which led to pressure build-up and the blast. The 1,550 MW plant supplies electricity to nine states and employs some 870 people.

Another fire at the Yakutsk Thermal Power Plant on 2nd October 2017 in eastern Russia left 300,000 residents without light and heat for six hours. In one of the coldest habited areas of the world, a state of emergency was declared due to the freezing temperatures. While the cause of the fire is under investigation, this plant features old and outdated equipment and is soon to be retired.

In light of these accidents - and these are just two of many fire incidents - the power generation industry and the companies that operate in this sector must develop new expertise to identify, evaluate and mitigate potential risks if they wish to remain in business Whether adopting new technologies, investing in new plants or equipment, or managing ageing plants, these scenarios all involve a degree of risk. Failure to do so can expose these companies to potential loss of lives or operational capacity and/or efficiency and would ultimately affect their profit, balance sheet and reputation.

Amidst these changes, the fact remains that the majority of losses, whether caused by equipment failures, natural catastrophes or human errors, are preventable.

The Fire Loss Prevention of India (FLPFI) has published a new white paper looking at ‘Loss Prevention in Thermal Power Plants’. The white paper is aimed at raising awareness of the potential risks in the operation of thermal power plants along with the risk management needed to ensure that plants are more resilient.

A copy of the document can be downloaded here: -