Accelerating the Transition to Green Energy with Product Lifecycle Management

Rising concerns over climate change have caused a major shift in the energy ecosystem, away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, clean, and sustainable energy. Currently, the earth is about 1.1C warmer than in the late 1800s. As outlined in the Paris Agreement, the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limit global warming to below 2C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5C by 2050. According to a new report by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), even if each country’s climate change pledges are kept, global temperatures are projected to miss the mark and instead suggest a 2.8C hike by the end of the century.

Despite the present energy crisis, inflation, economic uncertainty, and the war in Ukraine, companies face pressure from investors and consumers to reduce GHG emissions, which continue to intensify as temperatures rise. While this is true in many industries, it is magnified in the energy market as it has the biggest impact in both emitting GHG emissions and transitioning to green and clean energy. Another inescapable future is the demand for electricity, expected to triple by 2050 as living standards grow.

All future scenarios point to renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, to lead the power generation mix by 2050. Along with batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), the unit cost of solar and wind continue to fall while their use continues to rise. However, as the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine have highlighted, there is a need for an energy source that is secure, produces low emissions, and is dispatchable. Nuclear may, for example, be the complement to renewable energy to transition to a more sustainable future.

A key factor in accelerating this transition is using digital technologies to control product data for wind, solar, and nuclear. All companies run on product data—it touches all phases of a product’s/plant’s lifecycle. Those that can harness their data outperform their competition. They’re able to innovate, scale, and transform, merging their digitalization efforts sustainably and making them more resilient competitors in the marketplace.

They do this with a strategic business approach known as Product Lifecycle Management (PLM). Although PLM is often associated with engineering and software systems, generally known as “PLM solutions,” PLM is a much broader strategic approach to managing all aspects of the product, services, and processes directly linked to the business strategy. It supports the collaborative creation, management, dissemination, and use of product definition information, supporting the extended enterprise (that is, customers, design, operations, supply partners, etc.) as it spans from concept through end of life of a product or plant. PLM integrates people, processes, business systems, and information that empowers the business, enables product and process innovation, and enhances both top- and bottom-line business performance.

Wind turbine manufacturers, for example, use PLM to control the configuration of their product in both their new product introduction process, as well as their requisition-to-order processes, customer requirements, and other regulations. They make use of PLM solutions, product configurators, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and other digital solutions to manage all the components, materials, and processes that make up a wind turbine. Each wind turbine is comprised of thousands of parts, including software, much of which comes from an upstream supply chain regularly consisting of more than a thousand suppliers. For any given order, these parts or, in some cases, functions are configured with PLM, resulting in a bill-of-material (BOM) throughout various phases of the product’s lifecycle.

The after-service market is crucial in the wind industry. Therefore, using PLM to create digital twins—virtual replicas of these physical assets, which are kept up to date throughout service—is critical not just for performance, but also to increase efficiency and provide useful insights for future services, upgrades, retirement, and new products.

Wind and solar companies are some of the most sustainable in the world. In both January 2022 and 2023, Corporate Knights (a Toronto, Canada–based sustainable-economy media and research company) named Vestas, the largest wind turbine provider, as the “most sustainable corporation in the world” from a list of 6,720 publicly traded companies with more than $1 billion in revenue. Vestas is committed to being a carbon-neutral company by 2030 without using carbon offsets and by producing zero-waste wind turbines by 2040. To accomplish this, Vestas, and competitors such as GE Vernova, Siemens Gamesa, and others are incorporating circular design concepts, reducing carbon emissions, and reducing waste production from manufacturing.

Studies have shown that approximately 80% of the GHG emission is locked in during product design. Therefore, wind original equipment manufacturers are making concerted efforts from the outset to design sustainability into their products with the end of life in mind. To accomplish this, they are making greater use of digital threads—the ability to connect product data flow and achieve an integrated view of an asset’s data (that is, its digital twin) throughout its lifecycle across traditionally siloed functional domains.

Another key is reducing the product carbon footprint (PCF). So, for each component or material they need to know the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This extends into their supply chain where up to 99% of their carbon footprint is typically embedded in their product manufacturing process. PLM can increase the visibility of the product carbon footprint of the materials used, including those from suppliers, thus reducing the environmental impact.

Vestas is also pursuing a zero-waste product by 2040. While 80% of their average wind turbine can already be fully recycled or repurposed, there are challenges for the turbine rotors where composite components made of epoxy resin and fibers make it more difficult to recycle cost effectively.

“Integrating sustainability into everything we do is a part of our vision to become the global leader in sustainable energy solutions. This also includes our ambition to be the safest, most-inclusive, and socially responsible company in the energy industry. We want to create a place to work where a diverse workforce of people thrive, grow, and feel that they belong,” said Brian Lindgaard Jensen, vice president with Vestas.

The solar industry, entailing solar panels or photovoltaic panels (PV), uses PLM in a similar fashion and is similarly challenged designing for sustainability with an increasing emphasis on waste reduction and recycling at the end of a solar project’s lifespan. A 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates the recyclable materials in old solar modules will be worth $15 billion in recoverable assets by the year 2050.

The two primary solar technologies are crystalline silicon, with most of the market share, and thin-film PV, which is used for applications such as building rooftops. Many of the materials that make up PV panels could be highly recyclable. Glass composes most of the weight of a solar panel (about 75%) and glass recycling is already a well-established industry. Other materials that are easily recyclable include the aluminum frame, copper wire, and the plastic junction boxes. The challenge is that existing products were designed for durability with polymer layers that seal the panels from exposure to the elements. The lack of designing for disassembly requires that existing designs require thermal processing at 500C to loosen the adhesive.

In Europe, which has a more mature solar industry, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) of the European Union helped found a member-based organization called PV Cycle to build out a robust recycling infrastructure. Although similar regulations are expected in the U.S., as of now, only Washington state has passed legislation requiring manufacturers of PV modules to provide for recycling.

Leading thin-film solar manufacturer First Solar started a voluntary recycling program in 2006 and continues to perfect its processes. Today, the company recovers more than 90% of the semiconductor material for reuse in new solar modules. It also recovers 90% of the glass for reuse in new glass container products.

As the renewable energy market continues to grow, the use of PLM throughout a circular product lifecycle that spans from raw material sourcing through end-of-life recycling, recovery, and remanufacturing will be critical. And, not only through enhancement with digital twins, digital thread, and configuration management, but also in collaboration across many functions both within the company and with customers and their supply chain.

In addition to renewables, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent surge in energy prices has highlighted the need for countries to rethink their energy security strategy. The need for a more diverse and domestic supply of energy is clear, leading to a resurgence in nuclear power. Historically, nuclear power has been cost-prohibitive compared to coal and natural gas, but the combination of the need for energy security, additional low-carbon emissions, and flexible baseload power that can supplement renewable energy is key. Nuclear energy provides 413 GW of capacity operating in 32 countries while avoiding 1.5 gigatonnes (Gt) of GHG emissions and 180 billion cubic meters (bcm) of global gas demand each year. As a result, many counties are scaling back their plans to phase out nuclear, and others, such as the UK, are planning for new reactors.

Many of these plants were originally designed more than 40 years ago, before PLM was broadly accepted, but PLM is being adopted, typically during retrofits. So, as an example, if a unit gets a new steam turbine designed using PLM, the utility company can use this data to help them manage their power plant more efficiently. When it comes to older plants, the use of PLM and modern asset management largely comes down to the choice for more efficiency and improved data consistency.

The challenge of net zero has also intensified the development in small modular reactor (SMR) technologies. SMRs, generally defined as advanced nuclear reactors with a capacity of less than 300 MW, have strong political and institutional support, with substantial grants in the U.S., and increased support in Canada, the UK, and France. However, SMRs have not yet proven to be financially viable, and few will be online before 2030. That said, they are attracting private investors, they will have lower capital costs, inherent safety and waste management attributes, and reduced project risks may improve social acceptance.

The companies investing in advanced SMR technology, such as NuScale Power, GE-Hitachi Energy, and others, use PLM, and in some cases enable almost all their employees to access data under configuration control. The reason for this is the requirements, quality, safety, and other data and documentation required for licensing are interrelated and critical to their business. While the scale may be different from wind turbines and solar plants, and the regulatory requirements more stringent, the PLM concepts and technologies are quite similar.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report highlighted that global CO2 emissions continue to rise at unprecedented levels. Energy companies need to accelerate their innovation, reduce their PCFs, implement more circular waste reduction, and do so while keeping their costs down with greater collaboration, which is exactly what increased digitalization and PLM offer.

We are witnessing the most dramatic transition in energy and the markets impacted by energy in our lifetime. PLM is playing a key role in accelerating the transition to green energy and a decarbonized, sustainable, and circular economy that will benefit our businesses, our customers, and the future of our planet for generations to come.

Mark Reisig is executive consultant, and Sustainability and Green Energy practice director, with CIMdata.

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