Power generation companies improve operations using digital technologies

Jon Lawson

In February 2018, in front of an audience of international journalists and other visitors, ABB launched its ABB Ability Collaborative Operations for Power Generation & Water. Driven from a new operations centre in Genoa, Italy, the new operating model enables leading power generation and water companies to improve operations and maintenance using digital technologies to collaborate with dedicated, co-located operations experts. The Collaborative Operations Centre sets out to deliver information insights that can increase customers’ profitability and productivity through better asset performance, higher safety and security, reduced risk and lower costs.

The push toward digitalisation has increased the amount of data available to customers. ABB Ability Collaborative Operations uses this data to provide more value to customers through information analytics, making this data more useful for driving decisions that optimise plant and fleet performance. ABB says that Collaborative Operations is proven to provide: 20% extension of machine life by using immediate data analysis to better manage as-sets, processes and risks; 50% reduction in maintenance costs by using predictive rather than preventive and re-active maintenance practices; and deeper visibility into equipment, plant and fleet performance, enabling customers to better understand performance capability and operating boundaries.

Speaking at the launch, Kevin Kosisko, managing director of ABB’s power generation and water business, said: “ABB Ability Collaborative Operations will help us bring the benefits of digitalisation to our customers in power generation and water by giving them information insights that lead to better business decisions.”

Collaborative Operations employs ABB technologies, software and services to automatically gather and analyse information on assets, processes and risks. Through these analytics, performance improvement areas are automatically identified, categorised and prioritised so that customers at operating sites, working with ABB experts in Collaborative Operations Centres, can take actions to ensure that each plant is operating within regulatory, load, environmental and cyber security requirements. Collaboration is scalable to customer needs, capable of being applied at a device or process level, up to plant and enterprise-wide operations.

The company already operates 15 Collaborative Operations Centres for various industries worldwide. And alongside the Genoa centre, two more centres for power generation and water will open in 2018, in Singapore and Germany.

Kosisko believes a key part of the future success of this collaborative approach to be interconnectivity – between power plants, software systems and more. He states that, “When we decided to use AI, we consciously decided we were not going to create our own platform; rather we were going to use technology that existed in the marketplace that we could grow but that also had the ability to connect with other solutions out there in an easy way. We believe our solution long-term is not a singular platform for one vendor but rather there will be multiple platforms out there.

“Key for our customers’ success is not only for us to be able to deliver solutions on our platform but also to be able to interconnect with other platforms to bring data in from those to drive broader solutions.”

To deliver this approach, ABB partnered with Microsoft and used the Azure platform for data aggregation, analytics and connectivity, and with IBM for the AI and machine learning tools. Kosisko comments: “The combination of data analytics and aggregation along with computing power and machine learning allows us to create what I believe are unique solutions across the industrial and utilities space.”

Responding to industry demand
Explaining the inspiration for the new collaborative approach, Susan Peterson-Sturm, ABB’s digital lead, says that, “many times we got engaged by our customers on a reactive basis – at start-up, or when there were already issues at a plant. Customers asked for more intensive support; starting at their control systems but extending around their processes and their overall plant performances.”

Peterson-Sturm describes the platform as, “robust and extensible. It’s easy to add plants in or change scope around applications. Robustness and security are at the heart of the platform. In this market there are lots of new opportunities and lots of challenges: and the teams that will thrive most will see those opportunities to drive in the time of disruption.”

Discussing ABB’s overall approach, she says that the firm has “a very people-centric view of digital.” Explaining this, she says: “There is a lot we can do to make our colleagues lives easier. Looking at plant-specific performance issues, for example, a really simple task is looking at a specific operating move across our peer plants, our common plants and getting to a point where we can benchmark how much fuel is consumed to get to a minimum dispatchable load; so just a start-up task, and how much variation we have amongst operators. It is very significant when you can drive to those metrics and understand the variability you have within your fleet. Now if you extend that out into your headquarters, that’s when you can make different decisions around optimising, and around making decisions about which markets you want to participate in. For instance, in conventionals, a plant may opt to engage more in ancillary services or start making trade-offs around asset life and profitability.”

Peterson-Sturm believes that this enterprise-level view will become increasingly important across the power industry. “Looking at this view of a much more distributed power market without conventional reserve margins and the kind of conditions we’re used to operating in, the market really shrinks; you have to get smart. So on top of our typical supply and demand dynamics, we’re adding in energy storage demand-side management, we’re inviting our customers to become more active participants in the market – and it gets really complicated; having that common view across an organisation has never been more important. Having those tools that extend beyond the plant, at the enterprise level that everyone can use to make sure were driving to the right strategic objectivism is absolutely critical.”

Peterson-Sturm frequently brings the human component back into this digital approach. She explains that in terms of benefits for ABB’s customers, part of the collaborative model is that it can help an issue found across the engineering sector as a whole: increasing time and cost pressures coupled with a workforce where the seasoned experts are on their way out. Peterson-Sturm says: “We provide significant value around being integrated, being able to work in this collaborative way – being able to troubleshoot issues together, and to bring other types of resource to bear that would be outside of the conventional power plant. So we can bring in data scientists or business analysts, to solve problem. It’s definitely customer-led. It’s staff augmentation and it allows plants to scale that capability for a fixed cost.”

Creative revenue opportunities
At the Genoa launch there was much talk of how ABB Ability will enable power plant operators to save money by making smarter decisions, but does it also tackle how they can create new revenue streams? “It’s a great question,” says Peterson-Sturm. “And the folks who are going to do really well in the face of this disruption are going to look at those new market opportunities. One prediction I have is that markets for firm capacity or ancillary services will probably become attractive and I think that is a creative revenue opportunity.

“Profit opportunities have to do with how you can basically participate more in those ancillary services markets; so that could be something about variable frequency regulation and expanding the amount of capacity you have to do that, for example, or black-start services. Outside of conventionals, if you look at integrated utilities, it’s about looking at extensions such as ‘could you be a service provider in the solar market?’or ‘could you be a service provider around batteries?’ and looking at different types of tariffs, for example.:”

Collaboration and smart grids
Another key issue in the power sector today is that of smart grids. So how does ABB’s new model fit into this sphere? Peterson-Sturm explains: “One solution we’ve added is demand-side management. One of the technologies we have at ABB is called the Virtual Power Pool.

“If you look at traditional utility dispatch modelling, it’s chunky, there are big blocks of power and big blocks of demand, and it’s really hard to run in a real-time context – and that’s before you layer on availability. So we’ve been able to apply this Virtual Power Pool technology, and we’ve used in on islands, for instance, where fossil power is extremely expensive because you’re shipping in diesel oil. The challenge right now is we have to find the tools that stand between this shift from the big utility model into a smaller markets, so anything we can do to let other players interact and engage with this more complex bigger power energy market is important.

“In the context of a virtual power pool, not only can we do an aggregate forecast based on renewable capability but we can also actually set that schedule, send it to the wholesale power market operator and close the loop on the control systems. Which, if you think of someone individual doing that over a fleet of, say 2,000 small generating sites, that would be humanly impossible!”

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