Digital Deployments

Smart technology uptake by power plants

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.

Key benefits

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.




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