EfW industry needs to invest in training next generation of plant operators 2/3

Experienced EfW engineer and consultant Roberto Vogel voices concerns over training the next generation of energy-from-waste plant operators and investigates how the sector can modernise. Part two of three

An EfW plant's grabber in action, photograph: Getty Images

About the author

Roberto Vogel is the founder and director of Vogel Waste Industry Services trading as of ENPRO SWISS, former chief commissioning engineer for Von Roll Inova (now HZI), founder and technical director of KRR ProStream (now retired) and EWB editorial panel member

4. What are the underlying issues?

Intrinsic challenges of EfW

The introduction lists five reasons why EfW is exceptional and why many engineers coming from other industries, such as conventional thermal power or petrochemicals, underestimate the need to understand the particulars of EfW. Here I will go into more detail on why EfW plant engineering is exceptional and why cross-disciplinary engineers need to acquire the specific knowledge and skills to operate these installations more effectively.

  • The very varied nature of the feedstock and rogue elements contained within. This is a case of “you need to see to believe”. Every waste processing plant has a “museum” of rogue deliveries, from artillery shells to entire cars, passing to lorry loads of wellington boots. The experienced EfW engineer is aware of possible rogue elements/chemical compounds that can upset combustion and FGT processes. Conventional power plants and the chemical industry deal with narrowly defined feedstock compositions and characteristics. Cross-disciplinary engineers need to undergo a culture change. Waste composition also impacts on fouling behaviour in the boiler passes and the FGT sections of the plant.

  • Environmental legislation and compliance. Although environmental compliance has now become increasingly imposed on other types of power generation (not least as a consequence of the tough regulations imposed on EfW, e.g. the “Incineration Directive”, (89/429/EEC, see Ref 2), EfW is traditionally the most inspected and regulated type of energy generation. A lorry load of PVC wellington boots can have huge compliance issues for the emissions, even force an operator offline. Again, for engineers from conventional power generation the amount of reporting and severity of consequences of small process changes is a new experience.

  • The need for high availability (90% plus), given the public health element of EfW. This is an aspect all power and petrochemical industry operations have in common. However, in addition to needing to produce a return on an expensive asset, the EfW plant needs to deal with MSW, which requires alternative disposal if the plant is off-line. This in turn potentially increases landfilling, having direct consequences on the environment (carbon footprint) and cost aspects of the process. It may also be news to newcomers that MSW fermenting in the bunker without turnover is an acute fire risk.

  • The large variety of different processes (chemical, physical, logistic). Compared to a conventional power plant, EfW plants have a high density of processes, of chemical, physical and logistic nature, if measured by unit power or profit output. There are relatively few (and the trend is for increasingly fewer) personnel on shift and in support roles. As an example, a typical CCGT power plant has a dedicated chemist to monitor boiler water and other chemistry aspects. In EfW plants the chemist job is added to the job list of maintenance engineer and water/steam analysis is done by an outsourced company. Another example is performance monitoring. Where CCGT operators have a dedicated performance engineer on the payroll, this is not financially viable for EfW operators.

From the factors discussed above it follows that operators wanting to work in EfW plants need specialised training and awareness of the specific challenges of EfW plants. If training and skills development is not prioritised this can lead to some of the scenarios described above. In the following paragraphs I look at the history and background of the development of a skilled workforce for modern EfW plants in the UK.

  • The relatively rapid and ongoing growth of modern EfW in the UK. This rapid growth, which was mainly caused by Waste Incineration Directive (89/429/EEC in December 1996) and the landfill tax, led to pressure on personnel recruitment and training of suitably trained workers for these modern process plants to this day. This demand for shift operators, managers and maintenance engineers was supplied from two main sources: From the pool of now privatised power companies and personnel leaving the armed forces, mainly the Royal Navy. Due to commercial pressures and the speed of development of new plants, training to assist these engineers in their sideways career move was not always top of the agenda, leading in part to today’s situation. It is noted, however, that after 1996 there emerged several technical recruitment companies specialised in recruiting for the many EfW job openings.

  • Rapid turnover and low staff retention. The high turnover of staff is a direct consequence of the high demand. A small pool of qualified personnel reacted to the high personnel demand by chasing the most attractive jobs and EfW companies offering increasingly more competitive pay packages. Anecdotal evidence suggests that within one EfW organisation operating several plants, the most highly experienced staff were moved to newly commissioned plants, often leaving the older ones understaffed. The rapid staff turnover has the effect of staff training being perceived as a waste of resources, as they wouldn’t stay long enough for the employer to have any benefit. It stands to reason that if management expects personnel to stay only a short time, this reduces the incentive to provide a generous training package to newcomers.

  • EfW Management and EPC Contractor’s lack of prioritising training. From the high turnover argument above it follows that training can be perceived as a waste of scarce resources. EfW contractors provide turnkey plants with a plant-specific training program included in the process of handover. If the initial employee leaves, they take the training, knowledge, and skills with them, leaving the plant operator to replace the post with a person probably untrained in the technology. These skills drain starts at times just months into a new plant operating, but its consequences can carry through for years, leading to a “muddle-through” culture. It is noted that some EPC contractors provide electronic training packs for this reason, however, generally not enough priority is given to the ongoing re-training of new staff.

  • Lack of specialised training/training providers and forums. There is a gap between university-level training and specialised training for shift and maintenance personnel aimed at the apprenticeship level, where many of the career movers to EfW are situated. Also, for people that have chosen the career of EfW technician there appears to be a lack of provision of dedicated training programs. University graduate engineers are often reluctant to get involved in site work, preferring desk jobs. University graduate level engineers at EfW sites have not started their career as such but are frequently sponsored by their employers to a part time or sandwich engineering course after they started to work life on a more vocational level. This lack of EfW-focused vocational training became increasingly clear to me when I attempted to put together a training framework for KRR Prostream operators. I determined that in order to have a specific targeted training program for our operators, we needed to create many elements in-house. One output from the training program is the boiler fundamental one-day course (see sections 5 and 3).

  • Forums and Institutions Concerned with the EfW Industry. In the UK there are several organisations that represent the EfW industry or promote or supply relevant training:

  • Chartered Institute of Waste Management (CIWM), (Fundamentals of Combustion Course, two modules of 75 minutes)

  • Environmental Services Association (ESA) (mainly lobbying)

  • University of Leeds (Thermal Treatment of Waste, two-five days courses)

  • Uniper Academy (sadly soon to be closed) has provided apprenticeships and targeted courses (see Ref 3)

  • Uniper Academy’s EfW Workshops (one to two forums a year) for EfW operators with practical presentations from plant operators, may continue independently of the academy closing

  • IMechE Conventional Boiler (two-day) conference program (often valuable presentations of practical experience for EfW operations)

  • Internal forums and training programs of large EfW operators, such as Viridor, Suez and Veolia

  • Several Energy from Waste Conference Forums (high level exchange of ideas, less concerned with day-to-day operations)

This listing consists of organisations the author has dealt with during his working career and is not exhaustive. Nevertheless, the following is my analysis of this landscape of organisations involved in EfW training and representation:

  • There is a strong lobbying element: ESA, CIWM, Energy from Waste Conference. These forums are not targeted at day-to-day operations.

  • There is no one institution representing all UK operators under one umbrella for sharing operating experiences and practical solutions.

  • Training and development are targeted at a high level, to investors, top managers, and consultants

  • There is only one regular forum that invites exchange of experience on a day-to-day operational level – the Energy from Waste & Biomass (EfWB) Workshop

  • The IMechE Boiler User Group is at an intermediary level between decision maker and day-to-day operations

To get a perspective on the UK situation it is useful to introduce the situation as it is in Switzerland. There the VBSA is the umbrella organisation of all waste treatment plant operators and represents virtually all operators of MSW plants in Switzerland. The following statement from the websites gives its core purpose:

“The core competencies of the association lie in specialist knowledge, information and training. Based on this foundation, the focus of his work is on advocacy, resource management, information transfer and training”.

Ruedi Frey, of Ash Consult, an expert in EfW FGT technology, says that most operators in Switzerland have undergone some training provided by VBSA.

In Switzerland, where EfW is the preferred disposal path for non-recyclable MSW, and where EfW has been the traditional way of waste disposal, sharing of information and specific training for EfW operators has been a way of life for many years. This may be due to the fact that most EfW plants are run by local authority organisations without profit (any profits are reinvested).

This contrasts with the UK situation where no central training and information sharing platform exists. This may serve big operators well, but smaller or single plant operators struggle to access training and data. However, in the greater scheme of things, even big operators with many plants can benefit from the experience of others and information sharing would serve to improve the reputation of the EfW industry in general.

5. A small step to address the problem – boiler fundamentals

In December 2019, the author (while still working for KRR ProStream, KRR) researched in detail operator training options for KRR operators and managers. Operators had already the necessary licence to practice training and certificates. The objective was developing a program for underpinning knowledge training that would give the KRR team the tools to provide a higher quality service to clients.

At the end of months of research and meetings with training providers the author reported his findings to the KRR Board. After further discussions it was concluded:

  • No specific NVQ syllabus was available and the NVQ model delivered by 3rd parties was not practical within the constraints of KRR’s daily working schedules

  • Apprenticeships meant a considerable commitment (2.5 years) from employer and operator, however, no tailor-made syllabus for KRR’s needs was available.

  • If KRR wanted to have training programs suited to our technical needs that are manageable within the constraints of a very busy day-to-day work schedule, we needed to develop an in-house program

The author was therefore tasked by the KRR board to develop and implement a suitable training concept for the operations department that relies mainly on in-company resources.

The resulting training consisted of different modules addressing the various roles, based on the NVQ principle of assignment-based on-the-job-training. This incorporated all tasks required for a given operations role. However, to address the need for operators to understand the specific working environment of EfW and EfB plants we developed two training solutions:

  • The team leader best practice course

  • The boiler fundamentals course

The team leader best practice course is a two-part, half theory, half site-based training tool, going through the 10 stages of a typical boiler clean with focus on practical learning points. As part of this course, we develop a library of best practice examples (learning points). The dynamic nature of the learning points allows the course to grow and develop and address changing and various scenarios as the operator finds them on site. New operators find this course very useful to prepare them for the unpredictability of site work on EfW plants. For more experienced operators it allows the sharing of new findings.

The second tool, which will be discussed further here, and which is a case study of how small operators can overcome the challenges of accessible and practical training is the Boiler Fundamental Course. The objective of this one-day training course was to take practical site experience from operators and managers and explain the systems behind the visible plant components and through this increase their understanding of the process.

From the author’s own perspective this course allowed KRR to provide theoretical knowledge to complement the practical site experience in a convenient one-day format and give operators sufficient understanding of the constructive and functional background of the installations clients operate. The course was extended to managers, sales and administrative personnel to give them more confidence in their day-to day tasks, communicating with customers.

The Boiler Fundamental course set a standard to which all new entrants would aspire to and it was a quick and practical means to bring new entrants up to that standard. Michael Anderson, general manager of KRR says: Staff are our KRR’s most important asset, the boiler fundamentals training provides the background knowledge of boiler plant that enables them to feel confident about working across all manner of different plants.

This format can easily be adapted to the needs of operators of EfW plants as well as managers coming from another engineering discipline into EfW. It can help to lay the foundations for follow-up training on plant-specific components.

This is a quote from one KRR ProStream team leader:

  • Darren, team leader: The course helped me in understanding different types of boilers and helped me to work my way around and clean efficiently. I was able to calculate how to control the amount of fouling that needed to be removed from high-risk areas, without blocking the ash removal system, which can potentially trip the boiler.


Ref 3, Online Article, The Business Desk, Energy provider to ‘realign’ engineering arm putting 1,100 jobs at risk

About the author

Roberto Vogel is the founder and director of Vogel Waste Industry Services trading as of ENPRO SWISS, former chief commissioning engineer for Von Roll Inova (now HZI), founder and technical director of KRR ProStream (now retired) and EWB editorial panel member

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