PLN’s Digital Future

PLN’s Digital Future

“Digital” is the new trend in the energy industry, with most utilities exploring the potential to leverage new digital technologies in operations. As part of its New Paradigm’s ‘innovation’ pillar, PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) reinvents its digitalisation journey.

In the third episode of a seven-part series highlighting this New Paradigm, Syamsul Huda, Director of PLN Business for Sulawesi, Papua, Maluku, and Nusa Tenggara Region, Pete Davies, Senior Vice President for Digital Engineering Solutions at Uniper, Evy Haryadi, Director of Utility and Technology Assessment at MKI, Surat Tanterdtid, Chief Enterprise Architect at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), Ignatius Rendroyoko, Director for Electricity and Wholesale Business at PT Indonesia Comnets Plus (Icon+), and Yohanes Sukrilasmono, Executive Vice President for Operation for Sulawesi Region at PLN shed light on what opportunities and challenges digitalisation presents for PLN and other national utilities in general.

Agreeing that digital is the way forward for the industry and for its sustainability goals, the speakers determine that digitalisation’s benefits are most evident in the optimisation of business processes and the improvement of customer engagement. Its realisation, however, hinges on getting support from local and international governments, finding the right technologies and leveraging the use of data, and upscaling human resources. Primarily, digital efforts lean toward improving company performance. PLN’s innovation is about “developing business processes that meet the ecosystem and the industry to achieve cost-saving and efficient energy supply,” says Huda. Thus far, the company’s biggest progress along this line is on power generation, with advanced systems for several power plants in Bali through its subsidiary companies, thereby, boosting plants’ reliability.

Smarter systems: more resilient and productive

Smarter systems are more resilient and productive. Tanterdtid shares EGAT’s digitalisation efforts, which they refer to as EGAT Transformations, and how it has upgraded its generation and transmission processes to be more systemic and simpler. For its generation business, EGAT employs smart power plants with new digital technologies that improve plant productivity and a “smarter control centre that is able to integrate renewables, despite being unstable energy sources,” whereas, it has found that grid modernisation ramps up its transmission business. Smart asset management likewise helps utilities predict the life cycle of assets, thus, maintaining assets’ conditions as well as improving energy performance. This has been adopted by EGAT, and since last year, PLN has implemented the same in Sulawesi, says Sukrilasmono. This has positively changed the way they manage assets, from time-based to condition-based maintenance, allowing for increased reliability, less unplanned downtime, and better prioritisation of maintenance time.

Further, digitalisation opens new opportunities for businesses. A leader in power generation and transmission, EGAT, according to Tanterdtid, is now exploring energy distribution for its “new business” through microgrids. Moreover, digitalisation of power plants permits remote real-time monitoring of plants’ activities, so operators have 24/7 vision on its performance and therefore can troubleshoot potential bottlenecks, something that isn’t possible with manual problem identification. In the long run, investing in digitalisation efforts guarantees high returns by improving business performance. Still, pushing for digital means leveraging on the use of data, a crucial element embedded in smart technologies.

Collected from sensors, smart meters, customer information centres, and call centres, among others, data can be consolidated into a big platform then analysed to identify new opportunities and support decision-making, highlights Sukrilasmono.
PLN believes a big data ecosystem is attainable. Currently, it uses big data to identify areas of opportunity and areas for improvement. Its managers in the field, for example, can use data to check how energy is distributed and identify the reasons for loss of electricity along distribution lines. Inspections, too, were reduced and shifted to using sensors, such as infrared and ultrasonic, resulting in faster, cheaper, and higher quality inspections. Additionally, PLN makes use of data to help its marketing department better understand customer behaviour, thereby, improving their business process through higher customer engagements.

Eventually, PLN as well as EGAT want to be able to find the right technology that is able to give them an accurate control of the system. Rendroyoko points to a data management control system and processor that can receive and analyse data, especially analog data to be converted to digital, from various sources. This type of data management will allow PLN to have a “fast and precise grid system that can collect all analog data from power generation, electricity substations, and customers” that can be transmitted into one control system, thereby, allowing all energy balance sheets it uses to control and forecast the daily electricity load.

Besides optimising business processes, digitalisation addresses changing customer expectations. Randroyoko notices that the present generation have “low tolerance for errors, poor performance, and outages” and prefer simpler and easy-to-use technologies. Hence, utilities ought to do their part to meet such expectations. PLN’s digitalisation journey then resolves two of its New Paradigm’s core pillars: innovation and customer focus. Smart meter technology, PLN Mobile, and the Internet of Things (IoT) help PLN give its consumers a better experience, considering that these technologies inevitably increase customer engagement. In fact, customers’ feedback on the smart metering program, according to Huda, has been excellent, and PLN is even seeing consumers and businesses moving to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which can allow two-way communication between PLN and its customers, thus, translating to even better engagement.

There is however the question of digitalisation’s contribution to the ASEAN energy transition. Uniper asserts that “taking renewables first goes without question” to realise a more sustainable energy future. Taking the United Kingdom as an example, Davies observes an increase in the percentage of renewables penetration before and after COVID-19, from 30-50% to 60-65%, respectively, noting that a cleaner energy future always stays as top priority. This, then, can be attained through flexible operations, and this is where digitalisation enters the equation.

There needs to be siginificant improvements and changes i how reliable or conventional assets operate

Pete Davis, Senior VP, Digital Engineering Solutions, Uniper

“There needs to be significant improvements and changes in how reliable or conventional assets operate,” Davies emphasises and shares a few examples. Firstly, traditional assets need “to be retrofitted with digital solutions to enable continued safe operations”. He also mentions advanced condition monitoring, thermodynamics solutions to reduce minimum load, performance toolsets to increase flexibility, and changes in maintenance strategies. PLN also strives to maximise its digital efforts to support the government’s target of including 23% renewables in its energy mix by 2025. Thirty percent of energy generation in Sulawesi comes from hydropower (as baseload),wind and solar power, Sukrilasmono notes. With the intermittent energy from these renewables, however, disruptions can arise; therefore, PLN combines available data, including weather forecast and system load, to make sure renewable energy integrates into the system. Plus, PLN continues to explore the use of energy storage, specifically batteries, to address the sporadic nature of clean energy sources.

On a similar note, Rendroyoko finds that data gathered from solar PV consumers can be used to understand the amount of power and load needed for the system, allowing for more control and balance within the system. Even though COVID-19 put the spotlight to digitalisation, it also impacted the industry, with electricity demand and sales going down. While some of PLN’s programs are still pushing through, such as the innovation of PLN Mobile and the digital platform for electric vehicle infrastructure, the pandemic pushed the company to postpone other projects, especially those requiring huge investments, like AMI rollout and smart microgrids in some islands in Indonesia, Huda reveals.

However, PLN is confident that its efforts will be realised, considering the national government’s support to the utility’s projects. PLN’s projects in Java, for instance, have been approved; a national strategy program is also underway. Moreover, PLN receives support from international agencies, including the International Energy Authority (IEA), which it sees as crucial for its digitalisation efforts as global companies can help the company build technical capability and get financing. Internally, PLN’s digitalisation faces the challenge of human resources. For Haryadi, developing the capability of employees is a primary consideration for all utilities looking at digitalisation, since it is difficult to force people to adjust their skill set from what they’re accustomed to doing to something new. Tanterdtid agrees and shares that EGAT has a program, called Digital Smart People, dedicated to “improve its people’s skills and give them competency” in using digital. Parallel to this, it is equally crucial to adequately inform customers about digital technology.

Should these conditions be met, there is little doubt that PLN, and other utilities, can move to digitalisation as the new normal for the industry, achieving improved business processes and increased customer engagement in the process.

To hear a full recording of the discussion on “PLN’s Digital Strategy?”, click here.
Speakers included:

  • Syamsul Huda – Director, PLN Business for Sulawesi, Papua, Maluku, and Nusa Tenggara Region
  • Pete Davies – Senior VP, Digital Engineering Solutions, Uniper
  • Evy Haryadi – Director, Utility & Technology Assessment, MKI
  • Surat Tanterdtid – Chief Enterprise Architect, EGAT
  • Ignatius Rendroyoko – Director, Electricity & Wholesale Business, PT Indonesia Comnets Plus (Icon+)
  • Yohanes Sukrilasmono – EVP, Operation for Sulawesi Region, PLN
  • Claire Volkwyn – Editor, Smart Energy International (Moderator)

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