Critical Changes

Strong case for process automation in power plants

Generation utilities are at the forefront of digitalisation initiatives. In­formation technology/operatio­nal technology (IT-OT) measures are gaining traction at power plants given their use in improving generation performance, managing the aging asset base and flexibilising units to integrate re­newable energy. Digital solutions can also help in reducing emissions by en­abling online fuel analysis and combustion performance monitoring. Further, it allows the remote monitoring of power plants and control of operations, and gu­arantees a shorter response time to possible events. Digitalisation has several use cases for power plants including asset management. Utilities are increasingly leveraging smart devices, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), block­cha­in, digital twins, robotics and data analy­tics, among other technologies, to im­pro­ve and optimise their operations. Over­all, there are various advantages of di­gitalisation for businesses, ranging from process automation and business analytics to a streamlined approach for ma­intaining regulatory compliance.

Growth drivers

The focus of power generation utilities is 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.

Digitalisation minimises human intervention and improves plant efficiency by operating at the designed criteria. 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 make data-driven decision-making. It reduces unpla­nn­ed maintenance cost and eliminates avoidable safety risks. Plant shutdowns can be planned to rectify/replace highly stressed components at the appropriate time, leading to savings on unplanned outages. The transition of a power plant from a reactive to a prescriptive maintenance plan can help improve financials and maintenance, repair, and operations costs. The digitalisation of power plants also allows remote monitoring and control of operations. This is particularly useful for hydropower plants as they are located in remote and far-flung areas. Further, in thermal power plants (TPPs), the use of digital solutions can help reduce emissions by enabling fuel analysis and better combustion performance. This helps power plants comply with the stringent emission norms issued by the environment ministry.

A key 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. Moreover, an increased level of au­to­mation and integration will be requir­ed in the future to cater to the rising complexities due to the increasing penetration of electric vehicles, renewable energy and battery storage.

Key areas of application

Flexibilisation: India has set a target to augment its non-fossil fuel electric ca­pa­city to 500 GW by 2030. The integration of renewables into the grid will be a major challenge as such a large renewable energy base is expected to lead to sharp variations in generation. To ensu­re the stability of electricity grids, flexibilisation of ex­is­ting TPPs is needed. Re­ce­ntly, the Cen­tral Electricity Authority (CEA) notified the draft Flexible Opera­ti­on of TPPs Re­gu­lations, 2022, setting a technical minimum load of 55 per cent for all TPPs. The flexibilisation of operations is a key area for the deployment of digital solutions. Digital solutions can help plants operate at technical minimum and required ra­mp rates, ensure stable operation at new sustainable mi­ni­mum load, undertake fatigue monito­ring of thick-walled boiler components, and optimise auxiliary power consumption. These are useful for maintaining power plant performance under flexible operations.

Operations and maintenance (O&M): Another key area for the deployment of digital solutions is power plant O&M. Digitalisation can provide useful data for condition monitoring, predictive asset analytics and asset performance management, allowing developers to maxi­mi­se return on assets. Besides, it inc­re­ases the longevity and performance of assets. It can provide the optimum time for requisite overhaul and inspection, and help in the utilisation of component material reserves/spares. Further, digitalisation provides transparency in relation to the impact of operating mode on residual life, besides helping in the de­tection and prevention of high-wear op­erating modes. Apart from this, AI- and ML-based analytics is being undertaken for O&M optimisation. Utilities are also undertaking reliability-centred maintenance, which focuses on improving the reliability of power plants by providing insights on risk versus cost for the maintenance of a particular equipment.

Remote operation and fleet monitoring: 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 digital twins and IoT. Digi­tal twin creates a digital model for feedback on plant characteristics and helps power plants leverage big data to drive efficiency. Integrating 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 at a TPP. In hydroelectric projects, digital twins are useful for optimising reservoir management. Besides digital twins, IoT can help in remote operatio­nal monitoring, automated plant control and asset health monitoring.

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.

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. It provides accessibility to da­ta from a remote location and optimi­ses sto­rage space utilisation. Apart from this, utilities are adopting IoT soluti­ons that utilise sensors to track the power plant performance. Further, ind­us­trial IoT supports condition-based monitoring and predictive maintenance of assets.

Issues and concerns

While generation companies stand to reap the benefits of process automation and business intelligence through digitalisation, there are some challenges th­at need to be addressed. 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. Since the impact of digital initiatives on pe­rformance indicators like cost, revenue, safety, quality and efficiency is of­ten not quantifiable, they fail to get the required attention. Besides, the limited know-how in implementing and scaling up digital initiatives is a key challenge.

Another challenge for the industry is de­vice communication. Each IoT device is designed to communicate over standard networks. Many edge devices are only ca­pable of one-way communication, and most assets on the shop floor such as programmable logic controllers, sup­er­visory control and data acquisition sy­stem and distributed control system may not use standard communication protocols from different vendors, making standardisation difficult. The high cost of replacing the existing infrastructure, and meeting compliance, governance, security and data centre requirements are some of the other challenges. Cybersecurity is another cause for concern for power plant managers exploring digital deployments. For this, utilities must adopt cyber-resi­lient infrastructure and put in place a cyber crisis management plan.

The way ahead

Going forward, there is a need to lay do­wn a time-bound roadmap backed by business cases to help utilities digitalise their operations. Bringing together technology solutions, business use cases and people from different phases of power pla­nt digitalisation could help deliver the desired outcome. Apart from this, ad­e­quate workforce training and change management are essential for the smoo­th adoption of digital solutions.

Nikita Gupta


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