Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) is betting heavily on digitalization’s potential to reshape the power sector. Earlier this year, the power equipment and technology firm established a new division, Intelligent Solutions, to develop and deploy solutions that create “sustainable, profitable growth for internal and external customers by optimizing their operation and maintenance systems. “With operational efficiency as its foremost aim, Intelligent Solutions will be responsible for integrating and optimizing the Controls Solutions business, the company’s proprietary MHPS-TOMONI digital solutions, and the deployment of MHPS’s much-watched “Autonomous Power Plant,” as its head Marco Sanchez, MHPS Americas vice president, told POWER in an interview recently. Sanchez also talked about why the company has sharpened its focus on digitalization.

Marco Sanchez leads the Intelligent Solutions Division at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas, a major equipment supplier and energy solutions provider for the power industry. Courtesy: MHPSA

POWER: What is the Intelligent Solutions division, and why does MHPS think this is the right time to make it a key part of its business?

Sanchez:  The mission of our team is to develop and deploy sustainable, profitable solutions to optimize power plant operations and maintenance. As for why now, we have been focusing on developing digital solutions for our customers on a case by case basis to address their individual needs, and we have decided to integrate the groups, and develop a comprehensive global offering that’s clear to our users and helps them with the challenges of today and the challenges of the future.

POWER: Its name suggests a solutions-focused business, but it sounds like Intelligent Solutions will offer services as well as equipment, right? Also does its scope extend globally, or is it region-specific? Where are you seeing the most demand for the types of digital solutions the division offers?

Sanchez: That is correct. In the Americas region Intelligent Solutions sits in our power plant services business, but the function and the vision for the new division is to provide intelligent solutions with our services, new equipment, and emerging energy systems. We are seeing the growth globally. There’s a lot of interest in our MHPS-TOMONI plant and products. What we’re going to be working on is making sure we communicate a clear architecture and a clear deployment flow path for our users that drives sustainable, profitable results for them.

POWER: Would you provide some examples of the services that will entail? 

Sanchez: Sure. [We can break it up into] three main business units, if that’s what you want to call them. One is going to be our controls solutions. MHPS and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), which is MHPS’s parent company have a control system called “Netmation.” It stands for “Network Automation,” and we’ve been the pioneers of digital control systems since 1992, when we established our DIASYS system, which stands for “Digital Intelligent Automation SYStem.” We have about 2,000 installations in the world today. So one of the first families of solutions will provide the next generation of control system upgrades and cybersecurity for our Users.

The second is the MHPS-TOMONI suite of digital solutions, which we break up into three areas of value creation: Performance Improvement, Flexible Operation, and O&M Optimization. The Performance Improvement area improves power plant efficiency and output. The Flexible Operation area provides faster ramp rates, improves plant turndown, and helps with peak-firing modifications.  The O&M Optimization area provides solutions that are going to help increase reliability of the plant while extending plant life and maintenance intervals of components in the plant to reduce O&M costs.

And lastly, our third business, which is really our main longer term vision, is to deploy our autonomous power plant concept globally.  We want to make sure that the building blocks of the autonomous power plant have clear product architecture and are on a clear commercial roadmap to address the evolving challenges facing the power generation industry.

POWER: TOMONI has become a core offering by MHPS. Would you explain what it is exactly?

 Sanchez: I had the honor to be in the room when the word TOMONI was nominated. We were in a meeting—we hold a meeting once a year with all our different companies around the world in Japan—about five years ago, and we were discussing what we were going to call our digital solutions portfolio. We went around the company for names. We had a survey and came up with “TOMONI,” which means “together with” [in Japanese], because we feel that digital solutions is a journey that’s going to help the energy industry and there is no “one size fits all” solution for the industry’s needs. What is it? TOMONI is our umbrella of digital solutions including operational upgrades, analytics applications, digital upgrades and related services for our products.

POWER: POWER wrote about MHPS’s autonomous power plant briefly last year, when MHPS had just publicly unveiled the concept. Would you give us a rundown of what the project is, what it entails, and how you plan to deploy it globally? 

Sanchez: We have seen a lot of interest in our plan of deployment—but we haven’t finalized the naming and are not ready to disclose what all of the autonomous features will be. What we can say now is that many of those TOMONI applications—the building blocks of the autonomous power plant—are already installed at our new T-Point 2 full-scale, grid connected power plant in Takasago, Japan.

POWER: But to confirm, it is an ongoing project, and it has been ongoing for several years now?

Sanchez: That’s correct. One of my main roles is to make sure we have a clear message for the market on what we are doing in the Takasago plant—what is autonomous about it and make sure that our customers have cost-beneficial ways to apply it to their plants.

POWER: In the bigger scope of things, where would you say your customers are in the digitalization journey?  

Sanchez: I have to say, it depends on the region, their size and the type of business they’re in. I’ve seen larger regulated utilities where they’ve already been on the journey for a decade. I’ve seen independent power producers where they’re just starting to enter the journey. No matter where a power generator is on their digital journey we are able to help them apply digital technologies at their plants.

POWER: What types of challenges do your customers express when they approach you about adopting digital solutions? Are some concerns more prominent overall than others?

Sanchez: Our customers are all looking for strong, quantifiable economic benefits from digitalization. That’s the reason we want to integrate our solutions to make sure they are clear and tangible for our customers. I have personally seen  global utilities that are ready to make investments, and they need  to make sure that the return on investment is doable.

POWER: You’ve mentioned sustainability as it relates to profitability and growth, and it appears to be a core part of Intelligent Solutions’ mission. Would you explain why that is important to MHPS and your customers?

Sanchez: Our focus on operational sustainability includes extending the economically competitive life of the machines. With the entrance of renewables and new technology and decentralization happening, existing assets and machines are not optimized to be able to adapt to the new market. Many were designed 20 to 30 years ago under completely different operational conditions, often with the expectation of long-term base load operation.  We believe intelligent solutions will make them viable for longer. It’s about creating balance in the grid.

POWER: So, for example, for control systems, for legacy units, what would you offer?

Sanchez: Netmation 4S is now being introduced. It provides customers with the latest technologies, cybersecurity suites, and updates to remain current with the various requirements and industry challenges.

POWER: One challenge expressed by power companies embarking on their digital journeys is that a power plant often has many components, or varying age, for varying applications. Is there a benefit to encouraging customers to look at digitalization holistically?

Sanchez: Absolutely, and the goal of our suite of TOMONI solutions and our autonomous power plant concept is to do that. TOMONI can give generators a holistic view of their plant and fleet needs—and not just at the component level – to make informed decisions that will help them optimize operations and maintenance for the entire plant.   We intend to provide a total plant solution, which is what our customers need.

POWER: You recently gave us some great input for our in-depth analysis of artificial intelligence’s (AI’s) current role in the power sector. You noted that while AI has great potential, its integration on a wider system could be compounded by the vast array of regulations and standards to ensure reliability or environmental compliance, for example. As a global company, how do you ensure that the digital solutions you offer cater to the vast world of regulatory and other limitations?

Sanchez: I think the key thing is ensuring that, at least for us as a global company,  we have a local presence and our local presence is full of local talent—people who work in the industry where the power plants are. We’re big on making sure that if our equipment is to be installed in a certain region, we have the right infrastructure in the region. Part of the journey with Intelligent Solutions is making sure we have the right equipment team and the right support team to answer questions regarding controls, security, and obviously, the implementation of TOMONI solutions that could help respond to regulations in their region.

POWER: Are there certain generating resources that are more conducive to digital solutions such as you offer?

Sanchez: Right now, we are number one in the world making advances to our gas turbine, so our focus started with deploying our TOMONI solutions in gas turbine combined cycles. We are now starting to deploy solutions to improve the efficiency of steam power plants, as we call it, especially in areas of the world like Asia. Our vision for Intelligent Solutions is to expand our offering to storage and renewables and to support the integration of those technologies with load-following thermal plants. It’s in the short-term goals to expand our intelligent solutions to those businesses.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)