Technology Boosts Reliability of Power Plants Despite Shifting Business Foundations

There is no industry more concerned with continuity of service than the power industry. Maintaining power supply to constituents is the critical mandate of every plant, whether harnessing energy from the sun, wind, water, coal, or nuclear sources.

While consistency is a top priority, the plants themselves are often in a state of flux due an onslaught of external factors, such as evolving business models, budget constraints, eroding infrastructures, high-stakes risk mitigation, and innovations in technology. Embracing change, while maintaining reliability, is a challenge. Information technology (IT) solutions can help.

How did we get here?

Consumer pressures. Waves of digital disruption have been sweeping across industries with tsunami-like force, transforming the way organizations, from media to medicine, conduct business and engage with stakeholders. These changes have been sudden and high-impact. In addition, the power industry is not immune to shifts in consumer expectations. Demand for transparency and a mindful approach to the use of resources are just some of the ways today’s customers are influencing the industry.

Limited budgets. The public sector, utilities, municipalities and their vendors are also facing heightened pressures to stretch resources. With strict regulations governing rate increases, power companies are often forced to absorb upward-creeping overhead costs rather than passing them on to consumers. Automation is often the knee-jerk response to controlling budgets, but isolated acts of automation can have limited success. Or, they can add unnecessary complications to a system if proper integration is missing. The need to turn to multiple sources for power, drawing on third parties and private organizations to supplement traditional sources, adds to the complexity of the power network, as well.

Patched structures. The deteriorating physical infrastructure of some public facilities is also a driving force in the current state of uncertainty faced by some power companies. During the Great Recession, many maintenance and upgrade projects were put on hold. Bridges, viaducts, damns, reservoirs, pipelines, transformers, and powerlines are among the structures and assets that have often been patched and coerced into service long past their prudent retirement dates. Emergency repairs are not only a capital drain on the organization, they also create a tangle of work-arounds and make-shift fixes that can be difficult to track and document, further complicating future issues that arise.

Isolated uses of technology. Just as patches to the physical infrastructure cause weak points, patches to the IT infrastructure also add to an underlying vulnerability and confusion. Disconnects happen when different departments or business units attempt to solves issues using isolated tools which are not integrated into the core systems. Real-time visibility can be obstructed, slowing down decision-making and having a counter-productive impact.

What is the alternative?

IT solutions can help power plants improve visibility and stretch resources in many ways. Modern Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) solutions provide the functionality necessary to monitor assets, predict the need for maintenance, and automate processes—all while improving efficiency and helping managers make informed decisions and strategically plan capital investments.

Although the plant’s legacy solution may be limping along, it likely is missing several of the digital-era capabilities that are essential to keep pace with today’s landscape. Here are just a few of the features that should be incorporated into processes to modernize operations and move to the forefront of smart, agile enterprises serving customers efficiently.

Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors have become more affordable and able to monitor a wide variety of physical attributes, from vibration to heat. The stream of data is sent to the cloud where it is aggregated and analyzed, looking for anomalies which require further action. IoT technology is used to detect early warning signs that an asset is deteriorating, allowing the organization to schedule repairs before the issue escalates and interrupts service. Sensors can also be used to stretch team resources, help in monitoring remote locations or long distances of pipe and power lines, and understand how remote stations are operating without dispatching personnel.

Big Data and Analytics. Massive amounts of data must be sorted and analyzed to derive relevance for stakeholders. Business intelligence tools play an important role in understanding data generated from the ERP, EAM or other point solutions. Analytics can make sense of the relationship between data points and provide context, which can be acted upon easily. Today, easy to use reporting tools, workbenches and dashboards help personnel at multiple levels in the organization make well-informed decisions in a timely matter. Speed and agile response are essential for maintaining the reliable power grid.

Artificial Intelligence. Predictive analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning recognize patterns and can apply data science algorithms to project future incidents. AI helps companies look to the future, project trends and analyze future demands. This helps managers prepare forecasts, plan budgets, and anticipate needs, from parts to people. It helps power companies plan the need for alternative sources of energy and the uses of third parties.

Traceability. Managers of power plants need easy access to as-serviced history, in addition to reliable data about performance, parts in inventory, demand spikes, usage trends, and scheduled maintenance. Service technicians may need to communicate with design engineers or parts suppliers. The ability to access the core system from remote locations is essential. The ability to communicate with vendors and suppliers as well as colleagues is also important and can be facilitated through technology. Social collaboration tools allow users to create a repository of information and share ideas. With access to the same centralized information, stakeholders can make better decisions, faster.

Main takeaways

Power plants face high-stakes pressures for keeping processes and equipment running at peak performance. Machinery failure must be avoided at all costs, yet many plants are limping along with tired infrastructures—for physical assets as well as internal IT solutions. Updating solutions in a haphazard fashion—without an overall plan—can harm visibility and create integration issues. It is far better to have one overarching strategy which uses modern technology to automate and facilitate informed decision making. Greater transparency, higher levels of customer service, and improved response times can also be delivered. IT solutions help enterprises stay ahead of trends and on the forefront of providing customers with the power services they need – and expect.

Bob Benstead is vice president of strategic planning for Infor, a business cloud software products company.