Digitalisation of power generation is one of the key trends shaping the power sector. The utilities are leveraging smart devices, internet of things (IoT) and data analytics to improve operations. This is being driven by the need for flexing power plant operations in view of large-scale renewable energy integration into the grid and the need for ensuring efficiency in power generation in the country. Since digitalisation of plant operations reduces the dependence on manpower and enables remote asset monitoring, it is expected to gain further traction following the recent Covid-19 outbreak. Moreover, new and disruptive technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), blockchain, sensors and analysers, and robotics are helping power plant owners devise new ways of achieving efficiency gains.
Key growth drivers
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have led to significant reduction in energy demand (around 26 per cent), besides changes in the sales mix and load curves. In the generation segment, maintenance activities have been hampered and there is lower utilisation of power plants, increased flexing requirements and postponement of capacity additions. In view of all these, deploying digital solutions can support the generation industry’s efforts to transition to new models of efficient and sustainable supply. Therefore, developers are making digitalisation the core of their operation models. They are identifying and adopting ways and means of workforce transformation through virtualisation.
Another growth driver for digitalisation of power plants is the increasing commercial viability of digital technology and emergence of software distribution models such as software-as-a-service, which is making digital solutions affordable for developers. Apart from this, use of digital solutions in coal-based power plants can reduce emissions by enabling fuel analysis and better combustion performance, as well as improve flexibility to effectively manage the impact of cycling and increase the share of renewables. Further, the digital transformation of hydropower and renewable energy plants allows monitoring and control of operations remotely and guarantees shorter response time to possible events. Digital solutions also help developers to respond to regulatory and market changes promptly, as well as enable data-driven decision-making.
Key areas of deployment
One of the key areas for the deployment of digital solutions is power plant operations and maintenance (O&M). Digitalisation of power plant O&M provides data useful for condition monitoring, predictive asset analytics and asset performance management, which allows developers to maximise return on assets. Besides, it increases the longevity and performance of assets. Digitalisation also helps in lifetime monitoring of powers plants. It extends the intervals for periodic inspection and flags components under the highest stress. Apart from this, the use of AI- and ML-based analytics is also being undertaken for O&M optimisation. The utilities are also undertaking reliability-centred maintenance (RCM), which focuses on improving the reliability of power plants by providing insights on risk versus cost for the maintenance of a particular equipment. RCM has been deployed by Nabha Power Limited at its power plants to enable data-driven decision-making. Besides, Tata Power also implemented a predictive analytics software in 2014, which provides insights on the future behaviour and maintenance needs of equipment.
Another key emerging digital solution for power plants is the digital twin. With this, power generators can use simulation and modelling systems to prevent outages and optimise daily power production. Fusing the physical asset with the digital twin, which will use operational records of power plants, allows better preventive measures, conditioning and predictive maintenance. Besides, the digital twin allows a detailed modelling of burners, coal particle combustion and analysis of oxygen concentration at the walls in a thermal power plant. Meanwhile, in hydroelectric projects, it is useful in optimising reservoir management.
Flexibilisation of operations is another key area for deployment of digital solutions. Due to the variable nature of renewable energy projects, power plants need to adopt flexibilisation measures to balance the grid. Renewable energy integration into the grid leads to lower plant load factor due to ducking of the load curve, increases forced outages and O&M costs, and reduces equipment life time, besides causing poor heat rate and high auxiliary power consumption in the power plant. In this regard, digital solutions for advanced process control including combustion optimisation, temperature control, ramp rate improvement, frequency control and soot blowing optimisation; condition monitoring solutions such as boiler fatigue monitoring and turbine life monitoring; and frequency support through condensate throttling and automatic generation control are useful in maintaining power plant performance under flexible operations.
In addition, utilities are connecting their power plants to cloud platforms. The data is pulled on to a centralised platform and diagnostics are performed from a central location. For instance, Adani Power Limited has connected all its generation assets to a cloud platform. It also plans to undertake initiatives including advanced analytics (to monitor and predict failure of transformers and for performance degradation analysis of solar modules) as well as virtual reality-based safety training. Apart from this, the utilities are adopting IoT solutions that utilise sensors to track power plant performance. A case in point is CLP, which is adopting IoT solutions to improve plant performance. Besides, it has planned other initiatives such as software to optimise the inventory level and AI-based technologies for combustion optimisation to achieve faster ramping and emission control.
To conclude, while digitalisation of operations significantly improves plant performance with lower O&M cost, as power generators move towards implementing their digital transformation strategies, data security will become a key aspect. Cybersecurity is a cause for concern for power plant managers exploring digital deployments. Gencos, therefore, need to ensure that their risk management and response practices are aligned with a digitally controlled environment. Apart from this, in order to derive the full benefit of digitalisation, it is essential to identify the best-suited technology solutions to meet business requirements. Besides, adequate workforce training is also essential for smooth adoption of digital solutions.