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Five Reasons Remote Technology Makes Sense Even If You Never Plan to Operate Your Power Plant Remotely

The case for advanced analytics and remote diagnostics

During the last 25 years significant advancements have been made in remote monitoring capabilities for power plants. A number of operations and maintenance (O&M) functions can routinely be managed remotely, and it is also becoming more common for peaking and renewable energy plants to be remotely operated reliably and safely.

Operating and maintaining a full-scale power plant remotely presents challenges that require sophisticated systems, reliable sensor and diagnostic equipment, stable high-bandwidth communication, and advanced security protocols. Even with progress made in each of these areas, some plant managers don’t foresee a scenario where remote operations will become the norm. But even in cases where there are no plans to run a generating station from a remote location, there is still a solid case for adopting remote technology.

Here are five reasons why the case for remote technology is stronger today than ever before.

Reason 1: Early Warning Diagnostics, Remote Inspection, and Troubleshooting Support

Power plants have increasingly implemented remote monitoring and diagnostics technologies as they work to stay reliable and competitive. The focus has been on early warning diagnostics using advanced analytics and enabling access to off-site technical expertise for troubleshooting and response. Having a skilled off-site team that has experience across an entire fleet can turn data into a powerful tool to spot issues before they develop into major problems. Ongoing activities to facilitate the rapid digital access to the mass of important data related to the plant such as manuals, procedures, root cause analysis, maintenance and operational history, as well as fleet experience of similar plants, provides further support to O&M activities.

The technologies to enable remote support of routine troubleshooting and inspection activities are also advancing. Using high-bandwidth secure communications channels, it is now possible for experts to support on-site activities such as combustion tuning as well as inspection and troubleshooting through the use of mixed-reality and other visualization technologies. This allows the best experts to support multiple issues at plants geographically separated without the lost productivity and potential schedule impacts associated with travel to one plant at a time. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of these remote support technologies and has resulted in further refinement and broader adoption at plants around the world.

Reason 2: Solving Technology Staff Shortages

The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for many plant operators. The pandemic served to expose potential staffing vulnerabilities, spurring interest in comprehensive remote O&M solutions. Now, in addition to improving reliability and competitiveness, there is a focus on safety and quality decision-making.

In a pandemic, plants want to minimize the number of people on-site, including operators and the external staff required for inspections, maintenance procedures, and rapid response during planned and unplanned outage events. In some cases, it may not be possible for all the needed external staff to reach the plant, highlighting the importance of digital connectivity. Whether the goal is safer operations in a pandemic, or dealing with disruptions caused by a weather event or civil and social unrest, reducing the number of people coming on and off the site can result in cost savings, reduce delays, and allow plants more flexibility as they cope with workforce challenges and budget concerns.

The foremost priority of any digitalization initiative is cyber-secure communications and the protection of data flow. Power plants need a secure system that protects their ability to continue to reliably produce power, while automating critical activities such as the monthly maintenance of the control systems including operating system security patch updates. DIASYS Netmation, the Mitsubishi Power control system platform, can be configured to provide compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corp. Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC-CIP) standards, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework, and other global requirements for server-level and client-level security. Netmation Protect Pack is an option that can now be added to existing DIASYS Netmation control systems.

Reason 3: Maximizing O&M Efficiency

Mitsubishi Power’s Remote Monitoring Centers (RMCs) in Takasago, Japan, and Orlando, Florida, use integrated analytics to expand the O&M staff “virtually” by supporting the power plant with a team of experts on demand 24/7, 365 days a year. Additional support is provided by RMCs in Alabang, Philippines, and Nagasaki, Japan. This allows experienced engineers to support plant operators to troubleshoot and provide O&M recommendations.

The RMC staff can utilize the data from the plant to analyze, diagnose, and predict operational issues based on their expertise and fleet-wide data. Power plants around the world have benefited from the RMCs, which support multiple plants without ever going on-site. For example, RMC engineers send settings updates to power plants by providing instructions and procedures for the on-site staff to implement, as well as a growing list of direct remote implementations such as remote combustion tuning.

Advanced maintenance planning is always valuable, but it is vital during emergencies. The option to safely postpone or eliminate a planned outage wouldn’t be possible without data-driven risk assessment and decision-making. Data from the plant allows engineers to predict when issues may occur and adjust to a revised condition-based maintenance schedule.

Enabling the automation of repetitive activities and record-keeping through digital solutions is another important step to shifting an operator’s focus to more imperative tasks that are more difficult to automate.

Reason 4: Shifting to Conditioned-Based Maintenance

Many plant operators are considering a shift from interval-based scheduled maintenance to planned condition-based maintenance, using advanced remote monitoring technologies to scan plant performance. In 2020, the Altamira II plant in Mexico had planned for a major scheduled outage for an inspection and maintenance. The COVID-19 pandemic made having the appropriate crew on-site for the process a challenge. The plant owner decided to leverage a technical relationship with Mitsubishi Power to use the company’s Remote Monitoring Center team to access plant data through a cyber-secure channel. After careful analysis, the off-site engineers suggested moving the planned outage by six months, shifting away from the interval-based maintenance program. The new condition-based maintenance plan included new monitoring priorities to reduce risk, allowing flexibility and the time to plan what support would be needed during the scheduled outage.

Data-driven risk assessments to enable true condition-based maintenance has been a goal of the industry for many years, and the latest digital communication, high-fidelity data storage, and advanced analytics are now making them possible. There are multiple examples of successful implementation during spring and fall 2020 planned outages during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reason 5: Real-Time Optimization and Improved Profitability

Some critical processes that benefit from real-time optimization, such as combustion dynamics management and part-load heat rate management, have already been automated using advanced edge-computing technologies and can operate autonomously. This automation was made possible by leveraging the mass of fleet operating data from the plants connected to the RMCs and analyzed using machine learning to set optimal parameters.

As one example of this automation, modern gas turbines utilize complex airflows to manage energy inputs to the power turbine, and perform cooling of critical rotating and stationary turbine components. The precise control of these airflows affects combustion stability and combined cycle system efficiency, especially during load following operation and at partial outputs. Historically manually controlled, these airflows are increasingly controlled automatically to provide real-time process optimization.

The TOMONI digital solution installed on Mitsubishi Power’s T-Point 2, GT Cooling Air AI-Optimization, uses Gaussian Process Regression (GPR) machine learning to actively optimize turbine cooling flow. This improves plant efficiency, especially during partial-load operation, and eliminates manual cooling airflow adjustments and potential unplanned downtime.

Mitsubishi Power is providing total plant O&M for its own power plant at T-Point and continues to gain valuable experience in applying remote operation and maintenance technologies. This minimizes the need for on-site manpower and leverages remote technical expertise on this fully integrated combined cycle gas turbine.

A Flexible Solution

While technology is well on its way to enabling remote operation and maintenance of power plants, the process needs to be flexible to fit the needs of plant managers and fleet owners. Digitalization plays a key role to enable data visibility, data analytics, and automation that improves reliability and productivity.

Digitalization and cyber-secure connectivity are pivotal to advancing remote technology by reducing the need for a fully staffed, on-site workforce through automation and remote access to expert technical support. This will assist with a diminishing experienced workforce and in managing crises that affect the workforce. The gains in efficiency will increase power plant competitiveness and boost income.

The future holds a wealth of opportunities for making power plants smarter, better supported, and more resilient to disruptions. Mitsubishi Power is validating the building blocks of the smarter power plant of the future at T-Point 2, which is already capable of various levels of remote support and autonomy. These building blocks will make existing and new power plants more resilient in the future.

Marco Sanchez is vice president and Head of Intelligent Solutions with Mitsubishi Power Americas.

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