The Digital Transformation of the Utility Industry

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The utility industry is faced with a digital transformation. As technology continues to advance, there are more and more opportunities becoming available to improve facilities and processes. Advancements in new technology offer safer, smarter and more efficient production and move away from the power plants of the past.

As the demand for data continues to grow, there is a need to improve and digitalize power plants. This is where the digital transformation begins.

Moving Away From the Power Plants of the Past

The distribution of power first began in the late 1800s. Since then, there have been numerous types of power sources brought into the picture, from coal, natural gas and nuclear power, to solar and wind. With each new innovative way of producing power came new machinery, efficiencies, and regulations.

Today’s plants are growing more and more resourceful and produce less pollution than those of the past, but there are still some older power plants running. Although the original machinery that was distributed and developed in the late 1800s is most likely not what you’ll find in these older plants, it’s possible to find equipment that’s reaching 50 years old.

While only a few locations still exist with equipment this old, many power plants are still lacking the most up-to-date equipment. Even if a plant has machinery that’s approaching 20 years old, think of all the new innovations that have come about in that time frame. As machinery ages, the maintenance costs rise. In an era where energy production and fuel rates are at historic competitiveness, cost of maintenance, or replacement is a constant guessing game.

In addition, as these plants continue to age, the efficiency of their energy output continues to decline. Not only are they not as efficient as they once were, they may require additional pollution controls that are included on newer technologies. Another cost factoring into the long term cost of energy production.

Many utilities are facing external pressures including, fuel cost competitiveness, rise of renewables, and the cost of maintaining current infrastructure and equipment. Utilities will have to weigh the financial implications of operating and maintaining an aging plant infrastructure or building newer more efficient plants.

Employees Addressing the Digital Trends in Today’s Power Plants

The Digital Trends in Today’s Power Plants

First and foremost, today’s power plants run newer machinery that’s more efficient and equipped to meet the growing energy needs of the digital era. Power plants that are built with this new mindset provide benefits beyond operating and maintenance savings. From safer and smarter daily production to smart plant technologies, we’ll dig into how power plants are embracing digitalization.

Safer, Smarter and More Efficient Production

If you’ve ever been on the floor of a product plant, you’ll know that safety is a top priority. The safety of employees and the public is always a concern for utility companies, and the current digital transformation offers numerous safety improvements. Plants that have the ability to implement the Internet of Things (IoT) can easily detect when an issue arises. Sensors can identify when there’s an issue and notify workers immediately when a situation arises – this could prevent scenarios such as fires, leaks or explosions.

The safety of employees and the public is always a concern for utility companies, and the current digital transformation offers numerous safety improvements.

Here’s one scenario of a safety situation that’s very possible and could easily be resolved with newer plant technology:

Within a plant, there are pressure sensors throughout the machinery. When the system identifies elevated pressure in the residual heat pump line, the computer immediately takes the preventative measure of shutting down or diverting water away from this area. This all happens while the workers had no idea there was an issue, but it was resolved before it became a serious problem. 

Pressure Sensors That are Included on Machinery Throughout Plants

During the Chernobyl incident, a routine test of the mechanical system was initiated to simulate a total loss of power in the plant. Once the uncontrolled reaction began, operators were unable to recover and stabilize the system resulting in the worst nuclear disaster in the world. Had there been an additional safety layer in place for testing purposes, it’s possible this could have been avoided. 

Newer plants not only improve worker safety, but also allow production to work smarter. Digitalizing steps throughout the process can help increase performance reliability and meet regulatory standards. It can also identify and reduce waste by automating manual or repetitive steps. It has been said that digitalizing plants can provide a 25 percent reduction in operating costs.

As safety precautions increase and operating costs decrease, the result is more effective and efficient operations. Although digital and computer enhancements will continue to reduce system failures, good planning, well trained professionals, and rigid manual shut down processes will always be required.

Smart Plant Technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT)

So we’ve touched on the idea of IoT, but it really comes into play when talking about the future of power production and smart plant technologies. The use of IoT and big data help to create a more streamlined process that centralizes the plant’s automation. They can allow plants to identify power demands and determine when and where the most energy consumption takes place and how to reduce excess energy production.

Think of being able to remotely operate a 500 MW power plant when peak energy needs are required. The idea sounds futuristic, but it might be closer than previously imagined.

Another benefit to the digitalization of the plants and the use of IoT is that it’s now possible to predict and monitor machinery for potential maintenance requirements. So, rather than waiting for a machine to fail before performing the required maintenance, it’s possible to know ahead of time and plan. Not only will this prolong the lifetime of the equipment, but it also allows for less unplanned downtime – saving money in the long run.

A good example of tracking and monitoring equipment, which could be used in any business setting, is the use of wireless soap dispensers. IoT makes it possible for these wireless soap dispensers to track soap volumes and trigger a reorder when the machine is running low – now just image what could be done in side a power plant with this technology.

The low cost of sensors and efficiency of data collection systems allow for plant crews and suppliers to add more sensors in previously inaccessible areas. More live and accurate data can be immediately analyzed, by human or computer, to evaluate the current situation of the plant.

Additionally, plant engineers would be able to overlay digital inputs from field sensors into regulatory and safety requirements. For instance, if a turbine engine has a maximum rated temperate of 250 degrees, a sensor inside of the system can be set to trigger alerts at 150 degrees and force a shut down at 200 degrees.

Cybersecurity Specialists in the Power and Utility Industry Identify Potential Threats

Addressing Cybersecurity Concerns

As we move into a digital age, there are always concerns around cybersecurity. This is no different for the utility industry. In fact, most power and utility CEOs believe that a cyberattack is unavoidable. But knowing this, companies are working every day to identify and are prepared for any potential threat.

Because the impact of a breach would be costly and disruptive, and this has become a main focus for companies – to the point that addressing cybersecurity concerns have become part of daily operations. There are now cybersecurity specialists within power and utility companies dedicated to identifying possible threats and finding new ways to protect the systems.

As more wireless networks begin to appear on plant sites, there is a need to tighten security. These threats are one of the things jeopardizing a digitized fleet for many organizations. But new systems and intelligence are being created every day to help prevent cyber breaches.

Many utility systems are layered with firewalls and other security protocols. There are areas that don’t have USB ports to avoid people from linking up. As systems become more interconnected, think of the remote access example above, they become more vulnerable to attack and control. In our example above we theorized remotely controlling a plant form a central point.

If it is able to be controlled remotely, a hacker could possibly get in. Additionally, if plants are more interconnected through remote and wireless networks, the system could in theory be controlled by a single individual with access to the central location. Luckily, utilities are several steps ahead of hackers employing lines of cyber defense and emergency lock down measures to keep utilities safe.

Moving Your Facility Into the Digital Era

In this new digital era, supply chain partners are more responsive than ever and can help you excel during this digital transformation. From supporting inventory reduction challenges to providing improved automation and tracking technologies, there are a variety of reasons to work with a partner.

A supply chain partner can help manage your data to improve material planning efforts by tracking inventory levels. This lets you know exactly what is in stock and what items need to be ordered when running low. The days of running out of materials and having to wait for a reorder are over. From there, implement automation, tracking, and just-in-time delivery to jump even further into the digital world.

Work with your supply chain partner to find the right solution and stay ahead of the competition during this digital transformation.

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