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Kristina Dotzauer |

Behind the hype – digitalization is driving positive change for power generators


Power generators face a range of pronounced disruptions to business as usual. Fleet optimization, for example, has become an increasing challenge as installed renewables capacity rises faster than many operators would prefer.


This growth is contributing to long-term energy price declines that, alongside the global sustained drop in fuel price, are putting tremendous pressure on power generation margins; even as they are being challenged to invest in modernized infrastructure to remain viable.


The combination of necessary capital improvements and slow growth in energy demand is creating a mismatch between CAPEX and cash flow – and creating a portfolio that can help smooth the impact of price volatility across fuel types is a real challenge.


To Siemens Power Generation Services Head of Digitalization, Stefan Bungart – cliché though it may be – it’s also a real opportunity.


As he puts it: “The pressures on power generation operators are undoubtedly growing and require some creative thinking to resolve. But note that the word ‘digital’ hasn’t cropped up. That’s because it’s not a cause of disruption for power generation operators. But it can be a critical enabler of positive change, if grounded in real business pain points.”


He added: “Most generators are already reaping tangible benefits from early-stage initiatives around sensors, controls, and predictive data analytics. It’s also helping most lower the cost of maintenance, which can account for as much as 40 percent of operating costs. Digitalization offers a clear and proven path to reducing this, as well as the costs associated with unplanned down-time and replacement part inventories.”


Digitalization Down Under


Australia’s Origin Energy is a compelling case in point. ASX-listed Origin operates one of Australia's largest power generation portfolios with 6,010 MW of capacity and is also the country’s largest energy retailer with approximately 4.2 million customers across industrial, small business and residential markets.


They are also operating in one of the world’s most volatile energy markets. To meet Origin’s requirements, Siemens helped set up a Monitoring and Support Centre (MSC) in Brisbane that enabled the company to support their fleet operators in continuously monitoring its generation and distribution system (which is spread across the vast distances of eastern and southern Australia) from a central location.


As a report from Siemens Customer Magazine  puts it: “Red lights suddenly flash on the computer screens in Origin Energy’s MSC in Queensland. Output from a big wind turbine farm, 2,000 km away in South Australia, has abruptly dropped to zero as a previously strong air current dies. The wholesale electricity market across Australia reacts in seconds, rocketing the price from AU$50 a megawatt to the capped peak of AU$12,500.


But as the report goes on to note, for the two controllers sitting in the high-security, high-tech MSC it’s all in a day’s work. The loss of output from South Australia is flagged across the communications network in milliseconds; the reaction – raising output from a power plant 1,900 km away to the southeast in rural Victoria – is a few taps on a keyboard. No human turned a switch at the power plant. Control from the MSC is direct; the response instant.


And the result of this investment has been striking: Origin has achieved an 80 percent reduction of manual operator actions as a result, with 98 percent start-up reliability.


A changing environment for operators


Although ultimately the challenge each power generator faces depends to a large degree on their individual profile, a key trend is the move away from baseload generation to cycling for thermal plants, with two to three starts per day and a shifting power generating profile.


“We’re increasingly working with customers to shift maintenance intervals and push outages out, not by weeks but by years. We’re using plant data to make sure this shift can be achieved without compromising reliability – we talk about the “optimum level of neglect,” as Stefan Bungart puts it.


“You can see rapid changes in how people think about their operations and how they run them. We’re supporting customers with data to build more complex economic models, incorporating non-tech elements and other variables in their scenario planning. This support isn’t minor tweaking to bring in 2MW more. It’s a real sea change in operational strategy.”


The creation of a “digital twin” of the full power plant can be one way to help finesse this data to enable new business models, boost asset optimization and create a scalable development environment.


And as Stefan Bungart suggests, in the not-too-distant future, inventories of parts will be reduced to a fraction of current levels. This will be possible through the use of onsite 3D printing as well as condition-based recommendations through advanced data analytics.


Digitalization continues to dominate headlines in the power generation industry – but now it’s starting to take on real context and meaning as innovations are implemented around digital services and they increasingly bear very tangible fruit.



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