Changes are taking place in the power sector at a fast pace. The country is nearly power surplus, renewables are growing manyfold, coal-based power plants are gearing up to meet flexilibilisation needs, battery costs are declining (they have declined by 85 per cent in the past 10 years), and electric vehicles are proliferating. At the same time, the cost of technology has decreased significantly, ushering in a digital era. Today, data and technology have become critical enablers of transformation in the sector.
The twin trends of power sector transformation and the emergence of digital technologies will converge to yield higher operational efficiencies, reduce expenditure and augment revenues. The integration of sensors, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), etc. in the existing energy infrastructure can result in several benefits. Digital technologies with their real-time and high speed analytical competencies can substantially elevate the performance of power plants.
Digital power plants
Digital technologies can be embedded in each vertical of the energy infrastructure, starting from the coal procurement at the pit to the power plant to the transmission grid and finally the last-mile consumer, with enormous benefits to all stakeholders. In thermal power plants (TPPs), digitalisation can be used to optimise several operations such as spares procurement, coal procurement, asset performance management, and commercial optimisation of fleet operations.
For instance, TPPs situated far from pithead mines often encounter logistics issues owing to uncertainty in coal delivery. Therefore, they stock more coal than required. However, with real-time monitoring and effective logistics management of coal, thermal generation companies can effectively determine the coal demand and procure the fuel in a manner that optimises costs and supply. With digital solutions, the TPPs will only procure as much coal and other auxiliary fuel as required thus, reducing their inventory space requirement and improving their future demand predictability. Also, TPPs often face sudden downtime owing to component failure and malfunctioning of equipment. From a financial perspective, when there is equipment failure, the genco’s revenue accrual process is suspended and it has to spend on the repair or replacement of faulty equipment. The genco may have to stop its operations and ramp up its facilities when it restarts the plant after shutdown. The genco has to suffer on both financial and operational fronts. Thus, it is important to address such issues.
Conversely, the digitalisation of TPPs with IoT-, ML-, AI-, drone-based surveillance and sensor-based real-time monitoring will ensure that the plant can predict component failures and schedule repairs without having to suffer from unexpected component failures. Features such as AI/ML-based data analytics, in combination with real-time monitoring, aid the TPP in detecting component failures in real time and predicting future problems based on the past and present performance of the component.
The tertiary advantages of digitalised energy infrastructure include improvement in personnel safety as digitalisation helps in safe monitoring through drones as well as robot-based repair of dangerous parts. Furthermore, digital equipment and real-time monitoring ensure early identification of issues before they become systemic or dangerous. In addition, with AI and sensors, the TPP will be provided with a list of probable causes for the anomaly and the response in these situations is standardised, reducing uncertainty and panic.
Issues and challenges
A fundamental challenge in the digitalisation of coal-based TPPs is the inability to quantify the performance indicators that are positively influenced by digitalised TPPs. It makes it harder for the TPPs to justify their expenditure on the digitalisation of their operations. Another challenge is the limited technical knowledge among plant operators about the process of transitioning to a digitally connected architecture. Further, TPPs often do not realise the full benefits of digitalisation owing to the lack of synchronisation. Digitalising a subsection of a plant yields marginal benefits as compared to platform-based full-scale digitalisation.
For instance, some gencos focus on improving the performance of their power plant by investing in predictive maintenance, real-time monitoring, SCADA, demand-supply forecasting, commercial optimisation, etc., but neglect to invest in digitalising coal procurement and logistics. Such a strategy of diffused investment in digitalisation is incoherent, lacks scale and hence is eventually commercially unviable.
A viable and successful strategy for digitalising power plants would be to plan an all-encompassing platform-based transition that integrates visualisation, cloud-based features, analytical capabilities, mobility platforms and data management capacities. It will enable scalability as well as integration. In addition, transitioning to a digital architecture under a single platform will help in technological standardisation and reduce the repair and maintenance expenditure on the maintenance of digital equipment given that it is all based on the same platform.
In TPPs with digital operating models, the gencos need to inculcate and train their personnel on optimally utilising digital equipment. Further, gencos need to supervise and gather data from different subsections of the plant while ensuring the security and integrity of the data. Besides, TPPs must devise and draft intelligent standard operating procedures to derive insights from the data gathered and integrate the lessons into their operations to optimise performance on a regular basis.
In the long term, the utilities must institute and foster a culture of innovation in the digital sphere in order to derive maximal returns from the data acquired. Utilities should also plan to provide their expertise in digitalised energy assets to decentralised utilities so that it can create newer avenues for revenue accrual. It could also foster innovation laterally by investing in start-ups and by funding academics to do research on improving the yield by transparently sharing data and information so that they can suggest actionable insights on improving their business.
In sum, the utility sector, including TPPs, is undergoing a transformation on several levels owing to technological and regulatory drivers. The digitalisation of the grid is a common and vital component of this transformation. Therefore, TPPs must develop and evolve effective digitalisation strategies to maintain a competitive edge and commercial advantage over other gencos.
With inputs from a presentation by Himadri Singha, Associate Director, Deloitte, at a Power Line conference