The digital world is here – and in the power sector

Twenty years ago, when we travelled abroad, we needed to carry flight tickets, a passport, sufficient cash or traveller’s checks and an optical camera to take some photos. When we got home, we took the film to a shop to be developed and printed so we could share the images with family and friends.

Today, it is possible to travel in some parts of the world carrying just a passport and a smart phone (Coronavirus permitting). We can do many things with a smart phone: check in at airports and hotels, rent a car, shop, acquire information on the weather, restaurants and popular tourist attractions, navigate to these places and much more besides. With a smart phone we can take photos and videos and share them with friends around the world on social media.

There is no doubt that digital technologies have significantly changed our way of life, and the changes are happening continually and rapidly. In fact, digitalisation is affecting every industrial sector and the power industry is no exception. The pace at which new digital technologies are being adopted in the power sector is astonishing. The drive to optimise and innovate power generation using digital tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics and asset performance management is not just good business, it is also a strategic imperative in a power market where every little bit of business intelligence, and every extra piece of timely, data-informed insight, can enhance a power producer’s competitiveness and improve customer relationships.

The potential market for digital systems in the power sector is huge. According to a US federal government report published in 2018, the US electricity industry will spend a projected $3.5 billion/y with a total of $46 billion by 2030, to modernise the grid through investments in digital communications technology, information systems and automation in an effort to accommodate more complex power flows and to improve overall reliability, efficiency and safety, while also meeting future demand from new uses. To keep pace in a smarter energy world, power generation operations must become more intelligent, and advanced digital technologies provide the most direct route for power generators to get there. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Connected Plant Conference which started only four years ago has attracted increasing interest from people in technology development and supply companies, energy sector, governments and research institutes.

Hosted by POWER and Chemical Engineering, the 4th Connected Plant Conference ran from 25-27 February in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). The conference provided opportunities to gain insight into the transformation of the energy sector and chemical industry with the latest digital technologies including monitoring, diagnostic, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and decision-support technology for power and chemical plants. The running of the conference was also digitalised. All attendees were asked to download and install an app onto their smart phone which provided information on all the sessions and conference events. During each session, questions for the speakers were submitted via a website and appeared on a big screen at the end of the presentation. At the numerous networking sessions, instead of exchanging business cards, information about each delegate, such as their name, job title, employer and contact number could be downloaded by scanning the QR code on their badge with your phone.

The conference opened with a visit to GE M&D Center on Tuesday morning. GE’s digital centre in Atlanta is the largest of its kind in the world and looks like a smaller version of NASA’s mission control centre. It has banks of computers and a wall-to-wall colourful LED screen flashing real-time operating conditions inside turbines, generators and other equipment at over 950 power plants in 75 countries. Every day, 1 million sensors attached to the machines send 200 billion data points to the cloud and to computers sitting directly on the machines. The brain of the centre is GE’s Asset Performance Management (APM) software application, which analyses, detects and sends out more advanced warning to power plant operators of issues that might trigger an outage. The APM also makes it easier for GE engineers and their customers to compare notes in real time and spot potential problems before they happen. Customers with the software see exactly what GE’s experts see. As a result, they minimise downtime and optimise power plant performance and save utilities money.

The conference sessions were tailored to offer actionable information and strategies to maximise the use of data, analytics and related technology to drive efficiency improvements, safety, and preventive and predictive maintenance programmes. Some companies that have not previously dealt with the power sector are now competing with the well-established power generation equipment suppliers such as GE, ABB and Siemens to sell their digital systems to power plants. The business cases presented by plant operators and technology suppliers showed that power companies that have acted on digitalising and moving to an intelligent power generation enterprise have already begun to realise returns on their digital and IIoT investments. Looking ahead, digital technologies are set to make energy systems around the world more connected, intelligent, efficient, reliable and sustainable.