Interview with Giuseppe Petrelli

Global Head, Marketing and Sales, Transformers, ABB

“Digital transformers to do more with less”

As the digital transformation of energy utilities accelerates and utilities explore ways to digitise their essential functions, technologies such as digital transformers are expected to play an important role in their digital ecosystems. In an interview with Power Line, Giuseppe Petrelli, global head, marketing and sales, transformers, ABB, talks about how utilities can adopt digital transformers for optimising their assets, the industry experience so far and ABB’s plans for the transformer market, among other things. Excerpts…

What are some of the new and emerging challenges for utilities today?

The world today dares to dream of clean electricity that is accessible to all. This requires connecting far-flung communities on the one hand, and dealing with the complexities of integrating renewables and clean technologies such as electric vehicle charging on the other. This scenario presents operators with new technical challenges and places key assets under considerable stress. Distributed energy sources are also creating business model disruptions. It is expected that by 2020, non-utility players will control a significant part of the energy retail market. And then, there is the increasing threat of cybersecurity attacks, especially on critical infrastructure.

What progress have utilities made in moving towards their digital goals in India and globally? What role can technologies like digital transformers play in their digitalisation efforts?

After a decade of investing in grid modernisation, several utilities are more efficient, innovative and customer-focused today than at any point of time in their history. A part of this modernisation has been about the deployment of sensors and smart grid technology, which has laid the foundation for the digital transformation of the power industry. This is creating a new business model for utilities, allowing them to become flexible service operators.

Transformers are the key equipment in a grid and making them digitally integrated brings with it the range of benefits derived from Industry 4.0, which is leveraged to reduce costs while enhancing grid reliability.

What are the key features and components of digital transformers? What are its various applications?

To put it simply, the key features of digital transformers are:

“Knowing more” with sensor technologies embedded in the transformer: These monitor and assess, inform, store and connect data, thereby increasing our knowledge of the asset. An example is detecting and analysing fast-forming faults by continuous measurement of gases in transformer tanks to avoid failures.

“Doing more” with monitoring and diagnostics: These include micro-processor based devices embedded in the transformers. They are designed to aggregate, manage and analyse data received from the sensors, adding intelligence and helping to do more with the same asset, for example, taking informed decisions to increase the transformer overload capacity in the short term for enhanced revenue.

“Doing better” as these monitoring and diagnostic platforms plug into asset management solutions such as the ABB Ability™ Ellipse® software solution. Such solutions unify the world-class functionality of enterprise asset management, workforce management and asset performance management.

“Enhancing collaboration”, as finally, the above-mentioned features enable access to expert services such as fault root cause analysis and recommendations for maintenance scheduling.

What are the key benefits of digital transformers (in terms of efficiency, reliability and reduction in transformer failure rates) vis-a-vis conventional ones?

The objective of digital transformers is “to do more with less”. According to the CIGRE study, “Guide on Economics of Transformer Management (Technical Brochure 248)”, the digitalisation of transformers will provide the following benefits – 75 per cent reduction in repair costs due to early detection, 60 per cent reduction in revenue loss due to unanticipated problems/outages, 50 per cent reduction in the risk of catastrophic failures and 2 per cent annual cost savings, which is equivalent to the replacement cost of a new transformer.

As connected transformers capture data in the grid, these do more than adapting voltages. These create actionable intelligence to optimise asset utilisation and enhance reliability to, at the end of the day, improve services to customers at home, in industries, hospitals, trains, etc.

What are ABB’s key offerings and solutions in the digital transformer space? How does the company differentiate its offerings in the market?

ABB offers digitalisation in transformers across the energy value chain. For example, the ABB Ability™ Power Transformer and the TXpert™ range of distribution transformers in liquid filled and dry designs. We also offer asset management solutions for third-party assets and innovative service solutions such as our flagship TXplore™ – a solution for robotic inspection of power transformers that is done without draining out the oil, greatly increasing personnel and environmental safety, and saving  inspection time and costs by up to 50 per cent.

Our digital transformer solutions incorporate the ABB experience and accumulated knowledge coming from the world’s largest installed base. We combine product and service offerings into new business models, thereby helping utilities to manage their assets more efficiently and reduce the total lifecycle cost. To this end, we aim to integrate digitalisation as a standard feature in all the power transformers rolled out from our factories.

How has been the uptake of such solutions by utilities? What are some of the key issues and concerns?

We launched our ABB Ability™ Power Transformer a year ago, and we are already in the process of delivering 50 of these units across countries such as the US, Spain, Brazil and Finland. Going forward, each of our Power Transformers will be digitally enabled at a basic level, while giving our customers the choice of upgrades and features, putting them in control of their digital journey. Utilities, data centres, industries and mining companies in several countries have installed our TXpert™ distribution transformers and as they experience the benefits, we expect to see rapidly growing interest. Our TXplore™ inspection service has been deployed by utilities in the US and Spain. Positive outcomes are reinforcing the economical and operational advantages of digital conversion, helping to overcome concerns, and breaking inertia and internal reluctance to early adoption.

What are some of the other promising technology trends in the transformer market?

An important technology trend is the growing interest in eco-efficient transformers for reducing environmental impacts and moving towards a circular economy. In addition to ultra-low loss transformers, there will be utilisation of bio-degradable fluids instead of mineral oil at higher voltages and currents, and ultra-low noise transformers. The need for integrating renewables is growing rapidly, creating specific conditions in the network such as electrical pollution. A specialised range of transformers is required for this. For large countries such as India and China, ABB is focused on developing ultra-high voltage AC and DC transformers.

What is your outlook for smart grids in India? What is ABB’s role in it?

In India, there are several challenges facing the implementation of smart grid systems. These include high capital costs and complex integration of systems to manage the high volumes of data. Additionally, in the past decade, the Indian grid has grown exponentially in terms of transmission capacity, with the addition of 765 kV AC and 800 kV DC voltage levels. The increasing size and complexity require greater system sophistication for ensuring grid reliability. We are seeing more and more utilities going in for sensor-based asset monitoring and maintenance solutions.

Several utilities are also adopting digital substations; for example, digital substations from ABB will be a key component of Maharashtra State Electricity Transmission Company Limited’s (MSETCL) next-generation grids. These will be instrumental in transmitting clean energy from nearby solar plants to the rest of the state. We also recently commissioned a 110 kV digital substation for Technopark, one of the largest information technology parks in India, located in Kerala.

ABB, with an ecosystem of digital solutions spanning hardware, software and services, is partnering with utilities and other customers for modernising the grid, enhancing reliability and reducing lifecycle costs.


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