DOE Using Simulation to Train Power Plant Operators

Feb. 1, 2011
For Department of Energy (DOE) operators, a day at work is a day spent playing an intensely intricate 3D video game—and it’s all to help the environment.

The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory uses a virtual reality (VR) simulator at its state-of-the-art training center to help develop next-generation, zero-emission integrated gasification combined cycle power plants with carbon capture.  There is also a collaborative aspect to the simulator. “The technology extends the training scope to both control room and outside operators and allows them to work as a team,” says Tom Fiske, senior analyst for automation and supply chain at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.

The VR simulator is similar to an immersive 3D video game, but with simulation based on high-fidelity process models that represent the actual behavior of the plant. Trainees wear stereoscopic headsets to enter the immersive photorealistic environment and move about the facility seeing exactly what they would see if they were in the real plant. “The walkthrough provides a realistic experience because the simulator merges plant imagery with data screens from asset management or other applications,” says Fiske. “The simulator lets them see parts diagrams and work orders. It even lets them practice extinguishing a virtual fire.”

The benefits of the high-fidelity immersive VR simulation go beyond those of traditional simulation, and include more realistic scenarios, improved communication and collaboration among work crews, off-line evaluations of procedures, and off-line training of rare, abnormal situations. “These operator training systems provide one of the best ways to train new operators and refresh the skills of experienced ones,” says Dick Hill, vice president and general manager of Manufacturing Advisory Services at ARC.

One of the problems that the VR simulator solves is the need to train operators to deal with problems that rarely occur but require expertise when they do occur. “Most young operators have never experienced a plant turnaround or a critical situation,” says Hill. “The only way to ensure that they will take the proper action during a crisis is to prepare them for it.”

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