The power industry is undergoing fundamental changes involving decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitalisation, enabled by the integration of information technology (IT) with operational technology (OT) alongside data analytics. Power plants are being digitalised with the aim to create an ecosystem with improved monitoring, analysis and prediction of plant operations. Digitalisation optimises power plant operations and maintenance (O&M), increases safety and reliability, and reduces unexpected failure, thereby leading to operational excellence.
With digitalisation, the operating model of a genco becomes highly connected through sensors and smart devices. Internet of things (IoT) provides the building blocks of a digital plant, allowing collection, transmission, analysis and management of operations, processes and asset data. Advanced analytics, added to big data, provides tools to better analyse plant performance and help developers make informed decisions. Real-time visibility of demand/supply, coal cost and quality, and operating parameters ensures fleet-wise despatch optimisation.
Due to the variable nature of renewable energy projects, power plants need to adopt flexibilisation measures. Renewable energy integration into the grid leads to lower plant load factors. There is thus a need to balance the grid. 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.
Apart from this, digital power plant solutions optimise O&M. Sensors, industrial IoT (IIoT) and other digital solutions can be used to obtain data on plant performance for condition monitoring, predictive asset analytics and asset performance management (APM). This allows developers to maximise returns on assets and increases their longevity and performance.
Powerful new technologies that are being adopted include low-cost sensors, analytics, IoT, the cloud, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). The use of ML, AI and reliability-centred maintenance (RCM) can improve the reliability of power plants by providing plant performance insights. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are being deployed by power plant developers for employee/field staff training as well as virtual site visits. With the emerging digital twin technology, power generators can use simulation and modelling systems to prevent outages and optimise daily power production. This tech allows detailed modelling of burners and coal particle combustion, and analysis of oxygen concentration on the walls in a thermal power plant. Apart from this, digital technologies such as drones, 3D profiling and automated sprinklers are being used for stockyard management. Robotics is being deployed for maintenance and inspection purposes.
Digitalisation initiatives by key gencos
NTPC Limited is implementing a digital strategy roadmap for generation performance optimisation and improved power plant management. It has undertaken advance process control (for enabling flexible operation) and advanced monitoring of stockyard (for hotspot detection and 3D profiling of stockpiles) as a pilot project, and is now expanding it to other units. To enhance reliability of equipment and processes, the company is also undertaking initiatives for advanced performance management (maintenance optimisation suite), application of IIoT and asset information management (digital twin with life cycle documentation). The other digitalisation initiatives of the company include a water dashboard for real-time monitoring of water consumption at power plants; a centralised system for monitoring of all renewable energy assets; adoption of robotic process automation, AI and ML in business processes; the strategic information management system; and an analytics platform for top management.
For capacity building of operating personnel, NTPC has completed a pilot AR/VR-based training project, and turbine training modules are under implementation. The company is developing full-fledged replica simulators for all available combinations of steam generator and turbine generator sets of supercritical units. A technology-intensive security system with centralised control and multiple layers of security is being envisaged to replace manpower-intensive manual security. To this end, a pilot project has been completed at the Dadri station, and it is now being implemented at the company’s other projects.
Tata Power has undertaken maintenance optimisation under the RCM approach and APM analytics at Trombay. The company has recorded reduced oil waste generation through the RCM process and condition monitoring, along with the use of additives and offline filtration to maintain oil quality at its Jojobera power plant. The company is implementing a host of other digital initiatives to enhance operational efficiency, including complete life cycle management of coal supply chain processes through the deployment of IT analytical applications, improved IT-OT integration by enhancing the perimeter firewall under a unified PI project at all generation plants, and an automated asset management process to achieve 95 per cent asset accuracy with digitalised assets.
Adani Power has been investing in cutting-edge technologies to enhance output and productivity, and strengthen its competitiveness. At Udupi, the company has initiated robotic desilting of the seawater intake pipeline. It is also setting up an Analytics Centre of Excellence to enhance plant performance by leveraging digital transformation and analytics. The centre will strengthen governance through its APM initiatives to improve asset reliability, availability and performance, implement RCM, optimise O&M costs, and implement predictive analytics and early warning systems to reduce forced outage and unplanned downtime.
Sembcorp Energy India Limited has undertaken digital initiatives at its thermal power plants (TPPs) in Andhra Pradesh with a total capacity of 2,640 MW. It has adopted the use of drones for coal inventory management. Photogrammetry software is used to generate a high resolution map, integrating point cloud and 3D modelling. This digital intervention has reduced inspection time, outage time and O&M cost.
Nabha Power Limited has undertaken digital initiatives at its 1,400 MW TPP in Punjab. It has implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) besides carrying out certain non-ERP enhancements (dashboards for O&M, commercial purposes, fuel sourcing, materials management and procurement, finance, and human resource functions) and deploying analytics-based solutions. It plans to use cognitive technologies such as AI, ML, IoT and robotic automation in plant processes.
Conclusion and way forward
Overall, the digitalisation of a power plant requires a defined roadmap and an implementation strategy. Cost-benefit analysis, manpower training (for the adoption of technology), undertaking well-defined change management and strengthening the cybersecurity framework are necessary for successfully undertaking this transformational project.