Power producers today need to address multiple changes to the energy industry that are coming fast and furious. Among these changes are diversification of fleets, new power generating profiles, and drastic changes in workforce demographics. It’s definitely a balancing exercise that requires new tools and techniques.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has added to the challenges faced by electric utilities. It has also forced power producers to think differently about how to run their plants. Two technologies arise to the forefront as not only solutions to meeting these challenges, but also have presented some new ways of working that help companies transform the business.
Digital Twins Optimize Operations
Matching the human factor with digital technologies is vital to the energy transition for several key reasons. The most important is data. Power generators need to deliver power as efficiently, effectively, and affordably as possible. Quality data is key to making that happen. The more data we have about the state of assets, the more we can bring to bear the full capabilities of digital tools.
There are three questions that company leaders need to ask themselves as they grapple with this new reality. They are:
- ■ How do we reduce costs?
- ■ How do we manage risk?
- ■ How do we avoid lost production opportunities?
Digital twins and industrial artificial intelligence (AI) can help manage increasingly complex assets quickly, while anticipating problems before they happen. Digital twins create an accurate virtual replica of physical objects, assets, and systems (Figure 1) to boost productivity and streamline operations. An asset digital twin is an increasingly common tool for operators of large equipment to optimize their maintenance schedules, predict, and avoid unplanned downtime. Asset data is leveraged to simulate asset performance in different usage scenarios under varying conditions, based on the known risks and usage information.
1. A digital twin is a software representation of a physical asset, system, or process, designed to optimize operation and predict problems through real time analytics. Courtesy: GE Digital
Digital twins provide a lot of value. Among the benefits are:
- ■ Operations and maintenance (O&M) optimization through the ability to plan outages to fix or prevent unplanned events. Reactive work is two to five times more expensive than planned work, and planned work can utilize resources in a more productive way.
- ■ Mitigate operational risk by avoiding catastrophic events and taking people away from operational tasks that are critical to running the plant.
- ■ Improve availability and reliability by avoiding unplanned downtime and lost production.
Increased reliability and reduced reactive maintenance lead to higher efficiency and reduced costs. Companies that have implemented digital twins in their operations have increased reliability by as much as 99% in less than two years, reduced reactive maintenance by 40%, and avoided $11 million in lost production by preventing impending failures.
Addressing Operational Pressures
Another outcome of the energy transition is increasing cost pressures for traditional power generation plants, with equipment pushed to the limits of normal operating conditions, which can introduce performance and maintenance challenges. Advanced software, analytics, and capabilities provided by technology experts can help. Some technology vendors can augment a companies’ in-house operations with expert services that expand digital capabilities and staffing. They can even train the right people and develop the right processes needed to capitalize on new technologies.
The good news for power generators is that there are multiple “blueprints” for common equipment models that will speed implementation of digital twin technology in most plants. A digital twin blueprint is made up of several pieces, which include:
- ■ Subject matter expertise that sets up your blueprint for maximum impact.
- ■ Failure modes/degradation mechanisms and multivariate diagnostics to calibrate the blueprint to your asset.
- ■ Configuration/operating context to assure that the digital twin “understands” the operating parameters of that asset.
- ■ Sensor inputs.
The digital twin provides a “single source of truth” for action related to asset maintenance. It provides a central recommendation management engine for risk mitigating actions and automated decision-making based on conditional state and the risk of failure. Ultimately, it is an extra set of eyes for plant engineers.
Changing operational profiles have brought other challenges to address the reliability of your fleet including readily available experts, travel constraints, weather conditions, and other variables. The extra benefit of digital twin technology is that engineers don’t have to be on top of the asset to monitor it—that’s what the digital twin does. By leveraging resources across geographical locations via remote operations, expertise can be shared across the entire fleet. Operators are no longer required onsite 24/7, even when generating equipment is not being used, saving money.
Many power generators have mixed fleets (renewables and legacy systems like coal, fossil, and steam) and they have to generate a certain number of megawatts to remain profitable. In that context, the ultimate need is to have a central environment to manage the full ecosystem and the tools to forecast the contribution of each asset to achieve that goal. Further, generators need the right digital tools (Figure 2) to perform the necessary tradeoffs in real time.
2. Digital tools such as tablet-based applications are helping plant operators be more productive and enabling real-time analysis of critical operations. Courtesy: GE Digital
In this scenario, generators require remote operations technologies to centralize data and decision-making. Digital twins enable asset knowledge and predictions conducive to smart fleet dispatching at the command center—all with less people and less overhead on the individual plant to make unilateral predictions.
Remote Operations Are Normalized
The pandemic has shown companies worldwide the importance of accelerating the digitalization of operations to run from a central location (Figure 3). Because workers could not physically be in the plant at all times, power generators had to quickly implement remote operations to keep the power flowing. This also had to happen fast.
3. Many power companies have incorporated remote monitoring into their operations. Some have their own monitoring and diagnostics centers, while others utilize the services of original equipment manufacturers to accomplish the same goals. Courtesy: GE Digital
While implementation of new techniques, technologies, and workflows drastically accelerated, it happened faster than many companies were comfortable with. They also realized the benefits of a flexible monitoring process that enabled insights from experts not located onsite and validated contingency strategies across plants.
While remote operations provide great value to an organization, there are challenges. Companies must build a scalable cross facility approach to operations with a variety of data feeds. They will need to normalize information presented by that data, and understand how it can be acted on no matter where the worker is located.
Remote operations give operators the ability to access aggregated data from anywhere. It helped our customers in their moment of crisis manage facilities from flexible locations. That has been very helpful to the industry. But once operators grew confidence in this approach, it quickly became evident additional value could be leveraged by operating multiple plants across a fleet from a shared infrastructure. Some of the benefits of remote operations include:
- ■ Contingency Operations. Emergency remote plant controls to handle health crises, weather conditions, and other unforeseen events and circumstances.
- ■ Multi-plant Control Flexibility. Centralize operations to monitor, augment, or manage control rooms and maintenance across a fleet using digital twin technology.
- ■ Unstaffed Plant Operations. Remote monitoring and operation of plants running with zero onsite staffing.
- ■ Leveraged Expertise and Support. Remote experts to aid local in-plant troubleshooting and maintenance activities.
- ■ Onsite Mobility and Collaboration. Empowerment, productivity, and safety of onsite maintenance and operations staff.
- ■ Flexible Worker Location. Work from anywhere flexibility for key staff members from management to maintenance.
- ■ Third-party Monitoring and Support. Enabling contracted services and support to actively monitor, manage, or augment plant operations.
Power generators see remote operations as an important technology pillar enabling contingency operations, digital worker capabilities, and intelligent and efficient operations at every level. Others are using remote operations to empower their workforce and improve safety with remote location flexibility and in-plant operations.
As the power sector continues to reshape itself responding to market forces including distributed energy resources, climate change, energy demand, and aging infrastructure, solutions like remote operations leveraging digital twin technologies can help companies adjust and thrive. Modern work processes to achieve equipment reliability and optimized maintenance procedures, while making the best use of valuable people assets, will utilize valuable data to drive performance and ultimately impact profitability.
—Martha Saker is a product manager for GE Digital’s Edge Optimization and Remote Operations portfolio.