By Nikolaus Fecht
Digitalization is a mega trend in many sectors - and the power plant industry is no exception. Companies use it to modernize their power plant maintenance or optimize their electrical engineering and process control systems.
Dr. Michalis Agraniotis, Manager New Products at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Europe GmbH in Duisburg, is certain that the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data is enabling three new applications in the power plant industry:
- Optimized operation and state-optimized maintenance
- Improved efficiency and performance
- System flexibility
But which factors will decide how competitive electricity generation processes are in the future? "As well as the central costs, we also need to look at parameters like flexible modes of operation. That includes quickstart, minimum load and load ramps," says Agraniotis. "In addition, I expect future business models such as capacity-related and grid-supporting compensation mechanisms to play a bigger role. In thermal electricity generation, only low-carbon and carbon-neutral technologies will survive in the medium term."
Digital solution plus expertise
That is why digital solutions are becoming ever more important in energy generation and consumption. According to Agraniotis, energy generators benefit from the cost savings that result from improved system performance (flexibility, efficiency), damage prediction and preventative maintenance. Industrial users, on the other hand, use digital solutions because the continuous data recording and prediction, energy management and usage optimization also reduce their costs, helping to make the plant more economical.
Combating cyber criminals
Data security and the willingness of customers to provide data will decide whether usually cloud-based big data solutions are accepted by traditional electricity producers, says Christian Kissling, Manager New Products at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) Europe GmbH in Duisburg. However, he sees the biggest challenge in an increasingly digitally networked world as cyber crime and the need for constant countermeasures to safeguard the system inventory, security of supply and company profitability.
Scenarios with virtual power plants
Virtual power plants give operators additional sales potential when prices on the energy markets fluctuate. But their real strength is that "they can simulate real scenarios in order to understand the effects on a component, a plant or a power plant fleet," explains Devina Pasta, Chief Digitalization Officer, Power and Gas Division, at Siemens AG in Munich.
"This helps those responsible to determine the optimum operation of the power plant." In addition, she says, the virtual power plant offers a safe training environment for operators and maintenance staff, as it provides key information in a risk-free environment.
Reducing costs digitally and sustainably
Rolls-Royce Power Systems AG in Friedrichshafen, however, sees digitalization as just one of many factors that determines the competitiveness of technologies for electricity generation. The company identifies a range of other aspects, including the type of energy source, flexibility, efficiency levels (including under partial load), costs, available storage technologies, reliability, environmental compatibility and emissions - especially of CO2.
Andreas Görtz, Head of the company’s Power Generation division, explains: "Direct customer benefits arise when we reduce downtimes and increase efficiency. One way to do this is to save on travel costs for error diagnosis." To achieve this, Rolls-Royce Power Systems offers new digital tools that enable communication between the operator, service staff and experts. How difficult is it? According to Görtz, linking and networking new and existing systems with the analysis tools of the customers and service partners is a real challenge.
Digitalization adds value
GE Corporation from Boston, USA, has observed four central trends in the energy sector: decarbonization, decentralization, digitalization and democratization. "None of the four is taking place in isolation and each trend, including digitalization, is the result of a host of factors," emphasizes Steven Martin, Chief Digital Officer at GE Power. "However, digitalization is primarily driven by business."
Martin sees enormous potential in virtual power plants, as he is "absolutely convinced that the electricity industry will change more over the next ten years than in the previous 100 years." The company is therefore looking to a digital management solution for the entire electricity industry, from individual plants to the entire grid or transmission system. "The true potential of digital solutions lies not in their impact on an individual asset or small system, but in an interoperable franchise system of electricity generation."
Only a fraction of the data is put to use
However, Johannes Schiel, Head of Public Affairs at Vestas Northern & Central Europe, still sees myriad hurdles that need to be overcome on the way to digitalized electricity generation - from a lack of access to data and the limited expertise of energy companies to the large number of isolated systems, each managing electricity in their own way. According to him, for example, only a fraction of the data produced by the electricity industry is actually used.
Hybrid power plants as a central element
The producer of wind energy systems also sees potential in virtual power plants, given that networking different systems of renewable energy generation is a key element of the transition to alternative energies. However, Vestas is focusing on the digitalization not just of individual energy producers, but of the entire supply, storage and consumption system across all energy sectors. Schiel is certain that "a central element of this will be hybrid power plants, which do not only benefit from networking with other power plants. Hybrid power plants optimize the use of different generation, storage and infrastructure components in a single power plant." In addition, he continues, they enable an entire portfolio of resources to be orchestrated digitally and cost-effectively across multiple sites and plant types, in order to guarantee grid stability.
Pilot systems pave the digital way
Siemens expert Devina Pasta sees pilot systems as a particular challenge of the digitalization of electricity generation, closely followed by the design phase, known as scaling. According to her, this requires more than just experts able to navigate the complex world of digitalization, software tools and an open Internet of Things (IoT) platform - it will also demand a totally new form of collaboration between everyone involved. Pasta explains: "We need to be brave, as the world of digitalization is changing fast. Waiting until technologies are fully developed or proven is no longer acceptable."