The digital revolution in the power sector has gained momentum. Power generation utilities across the world are undergoing digitalisation to make power plants smarter and more efficient to deal with the challenges of the future. The sector’s landscape is expected to change significantly over the next decade with the increasing share of renewables in the energy mix, ageing conventional power plants, growth of distributed generation, and expansion of e-mobility leading to grid security, load balancing and energy accounting/settlement issues. To mitigate these issues, disruptive technologies such as machine learning, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain can be used with energy storage solutions, rooftop solar and smart grids. Today, advances in sensors, control systems and industrial internet of things (IIoT) are driving efficiency gains from existing plant operations and enabling new business models.
Tighter regulations, an ageing power plant fleet and variability in renewable energy generation are driving power generators to adopt digitalisation measures. Digitalisation through sensors, devices and advanced analytics software can enable generators to derive actionable insights from a wide range of data and improve their decision-making. Digitalisation can help generators to manage plant operations in a better way, get information about equipment performance both on-site and remotely, and optimise asset performance through predictive maintenance. For instance, AI-based solutions range from real-time fuel optimisation in conventional power plants to help control emissions to wind energy forecasting (wherein AI optimises turbine blade positions to increase power output).
The growing need for flexible power plants is another driver of digitalisation. Digital solutions can help plant owners to quickly ramp up and ramp down their generation as per grid requirements. With advancement in digital technologies, the complete remote operation of power plants has become a reality. Hydropower plants are considered the most suitable for remote operation due to few complexities. Remote operation of hydroelectric projects (HEP) located in inaccessible or far-flung locations also helps reduce the hardships of the workforce.
The digitalisation of asset management through IIoT helps organise data for optimum utilisation and management of assets. IIoT brings together industrial machines, advanced analytics and people. It is the network of a multitude of connected devices that monitor, collect, exchange, analyse and deliver valuable new insights. These analytics-based insights are driving smarter, faster operational and business decisions for power generation companies. Similarly, internet-enabled condition monitoring systems can help analyse remotely collected real-time operational data of multiple power stations. They use machine learning to track plant health and detect failures in advance, minimise repair downtime, and improve diagnostics and prognostics of faults in the plant. Intelligent predictive maintenance systems have algorithms and models specifically designed to analyse data from the control system. They can provide the notification of changes in functions and performance using equipment sensors. These systems can identify faults before the occurrence of any serious malfunction.
An emerging digital application is virtual power plants that comprise multiple generation capacities which are linked together with IT networks and operate in coordination like a utility-scale power station. A virtual power plant can be configured with a diverse mix of energy resources ranging from fossil fuels to rooftop solar, combining their strengths and reducing their weak points. The objective of such plants is to relieve the load on the grid by smartly distributing the power generated by individual units during times of peak load.
Various digital applications are available to enhance the mobility of plant personnel and free up manpower for critical tasks. Mobile apps allow the monitoring of vital plant parameters. The status of operational approvals and compliance with statutory authorities can also be checked on mobile phones.
Domestic generation utilities are increasingly opening up to digitalisation. While digital control and automation have already been adopted on a wide scale, remote monitoring of power plants and implementation of condition monitoring systems are at a relatively nascent stage.
The country’s largest generator, NTPC Limited commissioned India’s first remotely operated hydropower project, the 800 MW Koldam HEP in Himachal Pradesh, in 2015. The HEP is being remotely monitored from its control centre in Delhi, located at a distance of 400 km. The control centre is equipped with field instruments and drives, input/output modules and controllers, and operator workstations and servers. State-owned hydropower generator NHPC Limited also plans to operate multiple hydropower stations with different original equipment manufacturers from a single remote control centre by integrating multiple stations.
NTPC is implementing other digitalisation initiatives such as providing advance alert/support to stations through remote analysis of critical operation parameters. This helps improve system reliability, and reduce outages and maintenance costs. The genco has been able to reduce forced outages as well through monitoring of shutdowns, root cause analysis of outages and trips, and mitigation of all system/equipment liabilities. To minimise efficiency losses at stations, it has deployed plant information system-based applications, which enable real-time efficiency and loss calculation. NTPC has also signed an MoU with IIT Kanpur for research and development in areas such as power system engineering, real-time digital simulations, smart grid, computational sciences, grid connectivity of renewables and microgrids, sensors, robotics and automation. The company has also identified the Simhadri thermal power plant as a digital pilot plant, which is expected to provide key insights for the fleet-wide implementation of digital initiatives.
Various benefits can be realised by generators through digitalisation as they can virtually “see through” what is happening at the operational level. Digitalised power facilities can enable predictive maintenance by continuously monitoring the health of the power plant. This in turn lowers operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, the benefits of which can be ultimately passed on to consumer tariffs. Better monitoring and predictive maintenance limits the duration of downtime, and its impact on generation and revenue by rapidly identifying the point of failure. A reduction in network failures decreases costs and increases the resilience and reliability of supply.
Digitalisation also provides assistance to the operations team and enhances plant performance by improving planning and overall project design, making it more efficient and less costly. Further, remote monitoring of the plant ensures higher operational efficiency.
All these measures ultimately extend the operational lifetime of the plant. A longer lifetime means more revenues and reduced capex requirements.
Digitalisation brings many benefits, but it also increases the risk of cyberthreats. In order to mitigate these risks, utilities need to increase awareness on cybersecurity, and build strong technical and cyber resilience strategies. Another challenge in the implementation of digitalisation initiatives is the lack of financial incentives, IT infrastructure in gencos, and willingness to share data among peer groups and companies. The industry has raised concerns that investments in digital technologies are not incentivised. Further, to maintain commercial confidentiality, asset owners and operators may not be willing to share information concerning individual power plants and network infrastructure.
A key challenge specific to remote operation of hydro stations is often poor network connectivity between power stations and remote control centres. This can be addressed by building a robust communication network.
The way forward
Digitalisation is the way forward for the power sector. Indian utilities need to catch up with their global counterparts on this trend. As per the World Economic Forum, about $1.3 trillion worth of investment in the digitalisation of the power industry is expected globally between 2016 and 2025. It estimates that four digital themes have the market potential of $100 billion and above. These are better asset, real-time data monitoring, energy storage integration, and customer-centric solutions. Although digitalisation entails a high capex, its productivity and efficiency gains surpass the costs in the long term. Going forward, there is a need for policymakers to introduce standards and regulations, support information sharing on the digitalisation front, and draft an exhaustive policy for developing the cyber insurance market.