The Necessity of Digitising Power Plants

The Necessity of Digitising Power Plants

At a time when the world is at a standstill due to a health crisis, digital technologies have kept the world moving. For the power sector, the advantages of digitalisation have perhaps never been more apparent.

Following supply chain disruptions and creation of new demands in the power market due to coronavirus-related restrictions, the industry is being pressured to improve efficiency and accuracy, integrate renewables, and reduce downtime as well as cost. Embracing digitalisation, from software, data analytics, advanced algorithms, and hardware, power plants can respond to a rapidly changing power sector.

Smarter power plants drive value and efficiency. Digitalising electricity generation worldwide could generate almost $1.3 trillion net economic value by 2025, as forecast by the World Economic Forum, as it sees this as an opportunity for creating new services and jobs as well as for increasing resilience, reliability, efficiency, and asset utilisation of the system. On another note, digital power plants permit continuous monitoring of plants’ health through asset performance management, which can help extend the power plant’s life and improve performance.

Digitalising a single power plant enables a 3% increase in fuel efficiency and lessens downtime by 5%, therefore, enabling optimised plant performance. The benefits of digitalisation have been evident since the 1980s with Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems establishing the foundation for a digital power plant and partnering with OSIsoft in 2004, thereby finding consistently improved plant reliability and performance.  Today, a modernised power plant helps save $15 to $20 million in capital, construction, and installation. As compared to traditional 600-MW to 800-MW coal-fired plants, digital ones can reduce costs as high as $2 to $4 million annually.

In addition, digitalising power plants can lessen unexpected operation failures. With a digital twin of the physical power plant, predictive analytics and maintenance can circumvent problems from occurring. To illustrate, this digital twin gives an operator the ability to change a piece of control logic when it is not properly working and do a virtual check of the intended change. When the plant responds as intended, the change can then be made in the real system. Power plant operators will be able to diagnose performance gaps in real-time. Therefore, the plant’s maintenance cycle is better managed.

Recently, Valuates released a report on how the global digital twin market in the utility industry is forecast “to grow more than six-fold between 2020 and 2026 and increase in value from $2.6 billion in 2019 to $9.35 billion”, which further shows the increasing recognition of digital power plants’ potential to improve power generation. In Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and South Korea’s utilities have signed up for GE Power’s technology that can analyse and interpret data from more than 10,000 sensors to increase efficiency by 2% and allow engineers to build a “digital twin” inside the cloud to align actual and ideal performances.

Further, digital power plants can improve mobility, permitting enhanced performance and productivity. To illustrate, mobile logbook capabilities enable remote monitoring. This way, plant operators can have access to activities within the plant in real-time, hence, allowing them more visibility. Besides better communication setup, it will also ensure safety, efficiency, and security.

Digital technologies can also support a cleaner energy future. Parallel to the added efficiency and improved performance from better grid monitoring, digital power plants can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To illustrate, every point of efficiency in the plant reduces about 2% of carbon emissions on top of almost 67,000 tons less fuel consumption. Utilising novel technologies can also enable distributed energy resources by better incorporating the intermittent power from wind and solar into the grid — an increasingly important consideration as renewable energy increases its position in the region’s energy mix.

Digitisation, however, has its drawbacks. For one, it is an expensive process, requiring considerable CAPEX, although proponents argue that its benefits outweigh the costs — improved productivity and efficiency repaying the upfront costs required to digitise a power plant. Critics also argue that personnel and operators need to be trained as this is a new technology that requires sufficient know-how. Some also fear the economic impact and social implications as digital technologies may reduce the number of jobs available.

As with any change, it is necessary to have a balanced mindset and the foresight to mitigate challenges, such as those around the workforce. It is also equally important that governments use the methods at their disposal to create an environment that encourages the modernisation of the region’s power generation assets, both through the national utilities and IPPs.

Digitisation will inevitably stretch to the energy industry. How quickly the industry will embrace this paradigm shift is what we will have to wait and see.

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