Ones & Zeros : How Digital Power Plants Are Leveraging Big Data and Analytics for Greater Reliability and Profit

Issue 8 and Volume 120.

Mobile digital solutions for the industrial internet offered by companies like ABB and GE, and further leveraged using cloud technologies like Microsoft’s Azure platform, are changing the way the power industry manages day-to-day plant operations on the go.

Photo courtesy: ABB

By Tim Miser, Associate Editor

Italy, 1952. The war is finally over, and people are beginning to hope for the future again. Soldiers are starting families; towns are being rebuilt, and at long last life is beginning to look pretty good. The mind naturally wanders to cobbled streets filled with well-dressed Torinesi. Here a Vespa whizzes sveltely by. There a mother steps out of a shop with the day’s bread under her arm. Sure, it’s stereotype-or more accurately archetype-but it’s a powerful cultural meme nonetheless. In many ways, those black-and-white days are a different universe, unknown to us now. The past is a foreign country, as they say.

So it was when GE was called on to help build a power plant in Chivasso, a few miles northeast of Turin in Northern Italy. Back then, computers remained mostly exotic myth. Integrated circuits existed in infancy, but had not yet supplanted point-to-point wiring in the real world. Silicon? What was silicon? Relative to today’s technology, GE had a more rudimentary toolbox to work with. But it had a real opportunity to take a step into the modern world, indeed to play a role in creating that world. And that’s just what it did. The project would be the first time GE had installed a steam turbine in Italy. The plant was commissioned soon after, and served the surrounding area for decades.

But this is not a fairy tale. Fast forward sixty-some years, and the Chivasso plant was in trouble. Actually things were worse than that. In 2013, plant owner A2A had to mothball the facility entirely. The influx of renewable energy onto the grid, combined with conventional generation and a high-voltage cable from France, had created more power than the region could absorb. The conventional Chivasso plant could not respond quickly enough to changing grid demands. If it was to survive, it needed to change the way it did business.

GE had a plan. Mario Cincotta is general manager of multi-year agreements for GE’s Power Services business in Europe. He and his team analyzed the local energy ecosystem and decided to upgrade the plant’s natural gas-fired turbines with new technology and new software. At first they got bad news. Data mining exercises revealed that a brand new plant using Siemens hardware nearby would be able to out-compete them. But when the team deployed GE’s Asset Performance Management software, leveraging the cloud-based Predix platform for the Industrial Internet, the situation began to look more encouraging. After a lot of hard work, they were able to decrease the facility’s start-stop times by 2.5 fold. That speed was critical to helping the plant meet market demand, ramping up quickly to capitalize on profit opportunities when the wind stopped blowing and the grid demanded power.

They also installed a new type of combustor on the plant’s 9FA gas-fired turbines. “The technology turned an airplane into a space shuttle,” says Cincotta, “but now we needed the data and software to drive it. Without them, the power plant would be just a fancy toy.” The GE team input data from sensors inside the turbine into software applications, which allowed them to more efficiently harness the machinery’s capabilities. Using GE software, the Chivasso plant was able to manage the complex data generated during the facility’s operation. “Otherwise it’s a nightmare,” says Cincotta. “Like manually flying a spaceship.”

The Digital Transformation

A modern gas-fired power plant is equipped with more than 10,000 sensors. They measure and communicate movement, vibration, temperature, humidity, and chemical changes in the air and water. Historically, only a fraction of this data has been analyzed and quantified in the day-to-day operation and maintenance of a facility. The digital transformation of power generation has begun to change this, creating opportunities to exploit data and make sense of information that would otherwise go to waste. This allows power plants to trim costs, increase sales, and boost efficiency and reliability. “Big data” it’s called, and it’s a world where analytics rule.

GE worked with A2A to rescue the Chivasso Station power plant from closure. With the introduction of digital controls on existing assets, the facility was able to decrease start-top times by 2.5 fold and serve power to a highly dynamic grid in a competitive manner.

Power plant digitalization isn’t a new idea, of course, but momentum in the field is picking up. Thanks to economies of scale, prices to deploy digital infrastructure are dropping, and the technology itself is growing ever more intelligent.

Niloy Sanyal is the Chief Marketing Officer for Power Digital Solutions at GE. He puts it like this: “Now that expenses associated with digitalization are coming down dramatically, we can leverage data much the same way that the consumer internet has been leveraged. So just as book purchases on Amazon or map queries on Google now leverage big data, so too can power plant infrastructure, only with greater complexity.”

In a letter to shareholders last year, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said, “In the Industrial Internet we see the next great wave of productivity-both for our company and for the customers we serve. We are a company that invests in broad industrial transitions, and they don’t come much bigger than the full application of data and analytics to machines and systems.”

Sanyal agrees: “We are at a tipping point where technology is concerned. With the advent of big data and the cloud, we finally have an inflection of technologies that allows us to make massive computations and algorithmic deductions better than ever before.”

Seeing enormous opportunity on the horizon, multiple companies have developed digital solutions for the industry. Oracle is in the market, and Microsoft recently partnered with GE to bring the industrial internet to its Azure cloud for industry. ABB has also positioned itself as a leader in digitalization.

“Digitalization of the power industry answers a need that is critically important,” says Thomas Trepanier, Senior Vice President of the Enterprise Software product group at ABB. “We need to share information more effectively-between engineering and maintenance staff, business and operations, and other workgroups. When the right information is available at the right time, work gets done.”

Trepanier notes that the use of digital tools like enterprise asset management software, operations tools, and equipment reliability software can help power plants significantly decrease waste at their facilities and increase “wrench time” for maintenance, operations, and engineering. “When you have quality data with good communication between software tools and the workforce,” he says, “the result is enhanced safety, increased reliability, and a significant decrease in unexpected failure.” This allows for higher capacity factors and operational excellence, he says.

Missed Opportunities

In the past, power plants incurred costs and performance penalties because they could not deliver the right information to the right people at the right time. “The manual paper-based process created silos of information that were difficult to break out of,” says Trepanier. Such communication failures led to major component failures in transformers, large pumps, and other critical equipment, he explains.

GE offers software controls for digital power plant assets organized into six portfolios, ranging from nuts-and-bolts operations management to business strategy development. Photo courtesy: GE

The problem of poor communication is further exacerbated by the fast pace at which the industry must now operate, Sanyal explains. The increased penetration of renewables means power plants have to be more flexible than ever before. Loads now fluctuate dramatically, and facilities must dispatch frequently. Plants that used to operate as slow and steady base-load facilities must now assume a much different posture.

Digitalization gives a plant’s staff a better chance to analyze the information and predict failures before they happen, says Trepanier. “Tools like those offered by ABB bring more efficiency to the work cycle,” he explains. “They do this through capabilities like electronic work packages, which enable assets to be taken out of service and put back into service more quickly, lowering out-of-service time and increasing efficiency of work planning and maintenance processes.” According to analysis performed by ABB partner DataGlance and validated by power producers in the industry, enhanced efficiency tied to ABB’s software applications can lead to expected cost savings for a power plant of approximately $2.7 million per year, Trepanier says.

“Digitalization also benefits distributed power involving assets like Jenbacher engines,” adds Sanyal. “Resources like these can be brought to the grid much better with the aid of digital technologies. So customers like hospitals and manufacturing facilities that generate their own power can use software to integrate to the grid much more effectively, and in a more efficient and automated way.

The Business Case for Digitalization

Nothing in the power generation industry is inexpensive. Between the never-ending struggle to comply with environmental regulations and the constant costs of maintenance and operations at a facility, plant stakeholders could be forgiven if they tired of spending money. Still, the case for investing in plant digitalization is a strong one. Indeed, it is because of the enormous capital expenditures required by the industry that it becomes so important to wring every last drop of productivity from power assets, and software is indispensable in this effort.

“If I’m the manager of a combined-cycle gas turbine plant,” says Sanyal, “digital solutions give me real-time insights into my operation. Using tools that are common between the trader, dispatcher, and plant manager lets me know the exact capability of any given asset at any point in time, and this helps me make money.”

Trading strategies can be aligned with digital information, he explains, and this helps plants dispatch assets more profitably. “You don’t have to do hardware upgrades. You don’t have to do services upgrades,” he says. “It’s a solution that bridges both trading and asset teams and helps them make better collaborative decisions. Customers can see up to 5 percent more revenue with no additional cost than the software itself.”

Trepanier concurs. “As digitalization of power plants makes more information available to personnel from the plant floor to the boardroom,” he says, “day-to-day operations will not be the only activities that are enhanced.” The ability to make critical business decisions that affect planning for the coming days, weeks, months, and even years will be improved, he explains, and this will result in a more productive and successful enterprise overall.

Additionally, he says, mobility will be a driving force in efficiency for workers in the plant, greatly enhancing work management processes. The ability to download the information required to perform inspections and rounds anywhere in the plant will enhance both safety and reliability. And, because these workers will be able to send pictures, audio, and video from the field to critical decision makers in real time, the entire enterprise will be more productive as everyone works from the same high-quality information.

The Technologies

Many companies have developed products for the expanding market growing up around digital power plants.

ABB offers an Asset Suite that provides enterprise and work management capabilities specifically designed for power generation, transmission, and distribution organizations. This suite of applications standardizes and streamlines work processes to maximize productivity and improve asset performance through increased availability and improved reliability. The company also offers an ER Suite, among many others, that includes separately licensed modules for template-based maintenance and reliability optimization, system health, component health, and lifecycle planning.

GE offers digital solutions for all types of power generation, from renewables like wind, solar, and hydro, to more conventional fossil-fired assets and nuclear installations. The technology can be deployed in both GE hardware and in competitor’s hardware alike. “We’ve had lots of success stories with Exelon and Saudi Electric that have deployed our software in competitor’s hardware,” says Sanyal.

GE offers six different product portfolios, most representing suites which are comprised of multiple component applications. Portfolios include: Asset Performance Management, Operations Optimization, Business Optimization, Advanced Controls, Cyber Solutions, and the Predix Platform.

Sanyal explains that GE’s Predix is a licensed platform which allows IT departments or third-party developers to create applications on their own, which can then be deployed in the Predix environment for use at power plants. “We’re excited about it,” he says. “Five years from now there will be thousands of apps in use. Customers, third party developers, even competitors will begin to converge on a common platform. This ecosystem is critical. In the long run it will differentiate competitors and determine the winners and the losers.”