Digitalisation of power plants is one of the key trends shaping the power sector. The trend is driven by the need for flexibilising power plant operations in view of large-scale renewable energy integration, supply- and demand-side shocks, and the need for efficient power generation. Moreover, with the outbreak of Covid-19, utilities accelerated their pace of digitalisation and smart technology adoption, a trend that is likely to remain strong going forward.
Digitalisation has several use cases for power plants including asset management, flexibilisation of operations and emission monitoring. Thus, utilities are increasingly leveraging smart devices, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), blockchain, robotics and data analytics, among other technologies, to improve and optimise their operations.
The business environment of utilities is changing, with a focus on improving generation performance, managing the aging infrastructure and asset base, integrating renewable energy sources, evolving the regulatory framework, and changing stakeholder expectations. Digital technologies have the potential to address the new and emerging requirements by transforming the operating model of power plants.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown led to a significant reduction in energy demand, besides changing the energy mix and load curves. Maintenance activities were hampered and the lower utilisation of power plants increased the demand for flexibilisation, leading to a greater focus on deploying digital solutions to support the transition of power generation utilities to new models of efficient and sustainable supply. Another driver for the digitalisation of power plants is the increasing commercial viability of digital technology. The emergence of software distribution models such as software-as-a-service is making digital solutions affordable for developers.
In thermal power plants, the use of digital solutions can help reduce emissions by enabling fuel analysis and better combustion performance. This helps power plants comply with the tightened emission norms issued by the environment ministry in December 2015. Digitalisation can also improve the flexibility of coal-based power plants to effectively manage the impact of cycling and increase the share of renewables. Digital solutions help developers promptly respond to regulatory and market changes, as well as enable data-driven decision-making. The digitalisation of power plants allows remote monitoring and control of operations and guarantees a shorter response time to possible events. The remote monitoring of operations is useful for hydropower plants given that they are located in remote and far-flung areas. An intelligent hydropower plant increases productivity, reduces unplanned maintenance cost, and eliminates avoidable safety risks.
Key areas of deployment
Operations and maintenance: One of the key areas for the deployment of digital solutions is power plant O&M. Digitalisation can provide data useful for condition monitoring, predictive asset analytics and asset performance management, allowing developers to maxi-mise return on assets. Besides, it increases the longevity and performance of assets. It extends the periodic inspection intervals and flags components under high stress. Apart from this, AI- and ML-based analytics is being undertaken for O&M optimisation. 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. A case in point is Nabha Power Limited, which has deployed RCM and is undertaking data-driven decision-making.
Remote operation and fleet monitoring: Remote operation and fleet monitoring can drive generation optimisation, improve operational performance and enhance equipment reliability. Generation companies are increasingly deploying digital technology to facilitate remote working and automate operations to undertake 24×7 power plant monitoring, improve power plant performance and reliability, and undertake diagnostics of critical equipment and plant systems. To this end, utilities are adopting IoT and digital twins. The digital twin creates a digital model for feedback on plant characteristics and helps power plants leverage big data to drive efficiency. Fusing the physical asset with the digital twin allows for better preventive measures, conditioning and predictive maintenance, besides preventing outages and optimising daily power production. Further, the digital twin allows a detailed modelling of burners, coal particle combustion and analysis of oxygen concentration on the walls in a thermal power plant. In hydroelectric projects, digital twins are useful for optimising reservoir management. Besides digital twins, IoT can help in remote operational monitoring, automated plant controls and asset health monitoring.
Flexibilisation: The flexibilisation of operations is another key area for the 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 a lower plant load factor due to ducking of the load curve, increases forced outages and O&M costs, and reduces equipment lifetime, besides causing a poor heat rate and high auxiliary power consumption in the power plant. To this end, digital solutions adopted by NTPC Limited for advanced process control include 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. These are useful in maintaining power plant performance under flexible operations.
Fuel management: Digitalisation can be helpful in fuel management for gencos by providing real-time information on the coal cost, quality and mine-wise ranking for effective decision-making. Digitalisation can also help gencos optimise their fuel transportation contracts and fuel sourcing strategy. It can reduce overhead costs through cost-cutting measures such as unmanned operations in the plant weighbridge. Physical stock assessment of coal can also be carried out through drone monitoring. For instance, Tata Power uses AI-based pit-to-plant sourcing, an international coal price predictor tool for imported coal sourcing, at its Coastal Gujarat Power Limited Mundra power plant.
In addition, utilities are connecting their power plants to cloud platforms. The data is pulled 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 take 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, utilities are adopting IoT solutions that utilise sensors to track power plant performance.
Issues and the way ahead
One of the challenges faced by utilities in the digitalisation of operations is the lack of an integrated vision and a concrete framework for undertaking digitalisation. Often, the initiatives are limited to single use cases, which fail to deliver the desired results. Besides, since the impact of digital initiatives on performance indicators like cost, revenue, safety, quality and efficiency is often not quantifiable, digitalisation initiatives fail to get the required attention. Another challenge faced by utilities in adopting digital solutions is the limited know-how in implementing and scaling up digital initiatives.
In the digitalisation journey, adhering to the four pillars of digital transformation – business case-driven strategy, digital foundation, digital operating model and integration with the digital ecosystem – will be useful for utilities. There is a need for laying down a time-bound road map backed by business cases for utilities to digitalise their operations. Overall, bringing together technology solutions, business use cases, and people throughout different phases of power plant digitalisation could help deliver the desired outcome.
That said, as power generators move to-wards implementing digital transformation strategies, data security will become crucial. Cybersecurity is a cause for concern for power plant managers exploring digital deployments. Therefore, gencos need to ensure that their risk management and response practices are aligned with a digitally controlled environment. Apart from this, adequate workforce training and change management are essential for the smooth adoption of digital solutions.