IIOT Power

I4GEN: EPRI's Power Plant of Tomorrow Concept

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) calls its vision of the future—a more digitally connected one—I4GEN (for “Integrating Information for Insight and Intelligence for Generation”).

The power industry is challenged by many changes in generating portfolio, operating mission profiles, grid interconnections, customer engagement, and a workforce that is losing knowledge and experience to retirement. A digital world full of new technologies with vast potential for addressing most needs via a device in one’s pocket offers an as-yet nearly untapped arsenal of tools that could meet these challenges and transform the industry’s generating assets.

Changes Ahead

The power plant of tomorrow is likely to generate electricity in much the same way it has in the past, but the way in which the plant is controlled and operated using digital technology will change. Whereas today technology is used to remove bottlenecks, improve asset management, and increase effectiveness, in the future, plants will capitalize on the digital plant to optimize in near real time the cost, performance, and equipment; predict problems and faults; and enable preventive work and a new workforce.

Today’s typical large-scale power plants are equipped with systems, communication capabilities, and job functions that date back decades in some cases. Some processes are paper-based, and communication is through a variety of disconnected, ad hoc channels such as e-mail, phone, text, radio, paper, and electronic data/entry into various software-based solutions/data management tools. Time is wasted seeking, assembling, and aggregating data, as well as in reentering data in disconnected systems, which limits the amount of time available to analyze data and develop a comprehensive understanding of an issue or solution.

Many plants operating today use distributed control systems (DCS) to operate the plant with control logic stemming from proportional/integral/derivative (PID) calculations and control loops designed for setpoint steady state control. But as plants evolve toward a more dynamic operating window with drastically different mission profiles, that existing process control is challenged to enable smooth transitions toward a higher number and frequency of setpoints.

In contrast, the workforce of tomorrow will use a digital platform in which information produced in real time is used to compute estimates of equipment condition, and algorithms are used to forecast a set of operating conditions. The connected and integrated digital networks will automatically integrate data and produce information for various systems, functions, analysis, and actions (Figure 1). The computation, communication, and linking of systems will be embedded with interfaces that are easy to use but secured at various levels within the network. An open architecture modular system will allow for “plug and play” of new devices, software, and other algorithms regardless of the developer or vendor.


1. From static to dynamic information. Today’s power plants still rely largely upon static, stranded information sources (in the center). New technologies will enable tomorrow’s plant to connect, leverage, and share information resources across the enterprise. Courtesy: EPRI

These changes are being driven by a number of forces:


Grid modernization and integration. As part of an integrated grid, power will be generated from a range of sources. The mix of types, sizes, locations, and intermittent operations adds layers of complexity to grid control. Dynamic, fully integrated generation assets are required to achieve the full benefits of the integrated grid.

Cost-competitiveness is critical. Maintaining the reliability and availability of power generation is paramount while introducing new facets of flexible operation. Quantifiable benefits from implementing and adapting the I4GEN concept would be specific to the generating asset, how it is used within a fleet, and how it is used for a region’s dispatch to the grid, but near-term opportunities for improvements exist in almost every case.

Changes in the generation resource portfolio and the need for operational flexibility. The resource portfolio for generating assets is changing. As the portfolio becomes more diverse with the introduction of advanced power cycles, energy storage, microgrids, and other distributed generating assets, integration of these new elements with the grid is essential.

Changing workforce. Highly skilled and experienced workers are either retiring or preparing to retire from the power industry. The new workforce brings a different set of skills and capabilities, including an in-depth familiarity and expertise with digital technologies. In many cases, younger workers expect these capabilities and functionality from a workplace (Figure 2). Plants facing significant staff turnover and potential loss in expertise may also view an investment in digital technologies as a means to capture and automate that expertise, facilitate training of new personnel, and reduce risk associated with staff turnover.


2. Generational shift. As highly skilled, experienced workers retire, they are being replaced by a new workforce that possesses a different set of skills and capabilities, including “native” expertise with digital technologies, which they expect to find in the workplace. Courtesy: EPRI

Owning, managing, and controlling data and information has inherent value. Generating plants produce vast amounts of data. (See “Big Data and the Industrial Internet Meet the Power Plant” in this issue.) Managing and sharing that data is a critical function for moving from a reactive state to a more proactive state. As organizations recognize and assign value to plant data and information (similar to how they currently treat financial data), the opportunities, benefits, and drivers associated with this valuation emerge.

A Vision of an Integrated Future

EPRI and other companies are developing detailed visions of tomorrow’s power plant, which will feature seamless integration of data, autonomous communication of information, and corresponding response, action, or control. EPRI’s I4GEN is a comprehensive concept that takes a holistic approach to create a digitally connected and dynamically optimized power generation plant, using a modular and scalable platform of tools, techniques, and technologies that integrates the business, maintenance, and operational aspects of generating power to enhance performance, reduce failures, increase availability, improve flexibility, and minimize cost.

Dynamically optimizing a plant requires collection and aggregation of data and production of real-time information; embedding distributed and adaptive intelligence that supports decision-making; and identification of actions and responses that account for risk, reward, and uncertainty.

The I4GEN concept produces, shares, manages, and manipulates information at the appropriate time, within the proper context, and at a level of detail sufficient to support a response. It is enabled through an open architecture communication framework that is scalable, modular, and secure. Its foundation relies on data that is dense, pervasive, distributed, aggregated, and managed with appropriate computation and artificial intelligence to generate actionable information.

Potential benefits include:


Sensors and actuation. Expanding a plant’s sensing and monitoring capability leads to more data and greater ability to develop relevant real-time information. Employing actuation that is precise, coordinated, and self-diagnosing will lead to improved process performance and plant cost effectiveness.

Asset monitoring and diagnostics. Expanded and comprehensive monitoring enables the identification and diagnosis of equipment faults and malfunctions prior to failure, resulting in a significant accumulation of avoided cost. Data from sensing and monitoring, combined with diagnostic capability, leads to an understanding of equipment degradation. The remaining equipment/component life can be estimated/predicted through computation, leading to higher levels of reliability and availability of the systems and the plant.

Advanced process control. The ability to control and integrate plant operations supports changing mission profiles with the added capability to balance competing objectives of system performance, environmental performance, and equipment life extension. Process control systems are primarily digitally based systems that are essential for the operation of a plant. Enhancements to existing process control systems can lead to immediate performance improvements and profitability. Adopting more advanced control methodologies can support a greater degree of integration and capability to optimize performance.

Advanced operations and maintenance. Operation and maintenance functions that are more effective and efficient lead to proactive condition-based maintenance practices and reduced cost associated with routine and situational activities.

Optimization of system, plant, and fleet. The ability to optimize, for any time and production scale, is intended to improve value and reduce cost. There are numerous optimization goals across scales for a given system, plant, or fleet that will rely on having the right information at the right time. Optimization also relies on past, present, and forecasted analysis—much of which is not currently available for power production performance. A limited amount of cost and financial information is used for optimization, but there is little integration of the information types, limiting the opportunity for optimization. Opportunities to employ optimization practices across production scales, business functions, and grid integration are significant once real-time information and actionable intelligence are made available.

Data integration and information management. The prime motivator of the I4GEN concept is to provide the right information at the right time, and this is enabled through data integration and information management. Planned and purposeful integration and management of information will support data and information quality and security and lead to “actionable intelligence” that is robust and can be used to develop the appropriate actions and responses.

No Simple Transition

There are potential risks and pitfalls to embracing this new vision.

Gaining stakeholder support and providing a defensible cost-benefit analysis and return-on-investment (ROI) estimation are initial challenges. Additionally, treating digital upgrades and enhanced capabilities as an information technology (IT) project limits their effectiveness and ROI. Proposed tools, devices, and software must be intuitive to use, easy to navigate, robust, and suited for an industrial environment (for example, they must not impact situational awareness) as plant cultures and attitudes toward new technologies will heavily influence their adoption and use after deployment. The ability to search and retrieve data/information and to reconfigure analysis and interfaces requires careful mapping of the information needs and interests of engineers, managers, and subject matter experts. Those needs and interests evolve over time, so this information must be continuously maintained. Finally, with connectivity and flexibility can come cybersecurity risks, as the number of attack surfaces increases and the level of effort associated with maintaining security may also increase.

The I4GEN concept requires connectivity and communication between systems, hardware, and software users. This requires an increase in data collection; autonomous data integration; methods for massive data management; ability to reconfigure data integration and analysis; incorporation of advanced query capabilities; and application of intelligence algorithms (such as cognitive, analytics, and artificial intelligence algorithms). Enabling technologies include component and system modeling, augmented reality, visualization, and networked hardware and software systems to provide real-time information, distributed and adaptive intelligence, and action and response.

Start Generating Benefits

The I4GEN concept can be applied to all types of generating assets. Remotely located assets such as hydroelectric and wind facilities may develop highly advanced monitoring and diagnostics to support more effective use of onsite inspection and maintenance. Slightly different drivers and emphasis may be placed on central power stations in which enhancements in process controls may be needed to support operational flexibility.

Outlining a vision for generating assets using stakeholder input is an ideal starting point. Identifying a few goals that can translate into cost savings in the near term can maintain support and build momentum for follow-on efforts. Establishing a wireless network capability and connectivity using an architecture that is scalable and/or modular is an essential feature for building out capabilities. Building a repository of electronic data and information (such as drawings, operator logs, and equipment tags and specifications) that can be accessed along with plant data and equipment monitoring data is an important information set that may already exist for newer plants. Generating assets that are in the planning stages should include connectivity and network capability in the final design and budget; adding wireless communication, additional bandwidth, connection points, network and data management to newly built or newer plants may be straightforward.

Adopting the I4GEN approach in totality will be a large undertaking. In many cases, adoption of selected digital technology platforms and capabilities over time, with short-term ROI and measureable benefits, is a more likely scenario. Near-term development and demonstration opportunities that offer tangible benefits and utilize many of these enabling technologies include:


Digital workers. Tablets, smart phones, laptops, wearable monitoring devices, headsets, and augmented reality devices can be used by staff to carry out or complete a given job function. All of these considerations need to be evaluated under different scenarios: wireless communication capabilities; developing relevant information, procedures, guidance, equipment tagging, operator rounds, and work order entries in a digital format that is easy to access and intuitive; and ergonomics, safety, and effect on situational awareness.

Virtual reality and simulated plant analytics and operation. 3-D interactive images of workspaces and equipment layouts support training, assist in work planning, and can be linked to digital devices to support work execution. A plant process simulation running in near time using data from the plant can be used to assist in optimization of the process and provides a safe environment to forecast a number of situations to aid the plant in performance.

Low-cost sensing and monitoring. Additional data can help produce information and insights about the process, equipment and component condition, and other operational aspects, but the cost to purchase, install, and maintain these sensors can be challenging. Many new types of sensors are entering the market that are both low-cost and wireless; installation costs can be comparably less if a wireless network is available and powering the sensors can be managed cost-effectively. A number of low-risk opportunities exist to demonstrate new sensor technology and to evaluate the value that the additional data may deliver in terms of greater insights and proactive operations and maintenance.


The ultimate goal of the I4GEN concept is to make the right information available to the right person at the right time in order to make a decision or perform an action. ■

Susan Maley ([email protected]) is principal technical lead at the Electric Power Research Institute.

SHARE this article