While the ability to conceptualize, design, construct and even operate a power generating facility in a digital environment might sound like science fiction, it is quickly becoming the reality for many plant owners around the globe.
In some respects, hydro is playing catchup to other generating sectors in the move toward digitalization, with many projects constructed decades ago and equipment aged to match.
However, a booming move toward rehabilitations and upgrades, coupled with a surge in new hydro construction worldwide, has many in the industry thinking about what a truly digital future might look like.
According to a 2017 study performed by General Electric and the International Hydropower Association, digitalization of the world’s 1,225 GW-worth of installed hydro capacity could equate to an increase of 42 TWh of incremental generation, resulting in US$5 billion in annual operational savings and a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of 17 metric tons.
Far from an integrated, electronic mesh of various connected components, the philosophies of digitalization seek to change the way projects are designed and managed to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE INTERNET OF THINGS
Though interconnected industrial systems had existed for decades, it was not until the mid-1990s that the concept now known as the “Internet of Things” was truly fleshed out.
Summarized by Brandon Owens and Debora Frodl of GE’s Ecomagination unit, “the basic idea was to affix sensors to common objects in order to connect these items to the internet. This would create an interconnected universe where objects could reach 300 exabytes and be tracked and controlled remotely.”
The establishment of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center and introduction of the first machine-to-machine protocol, MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT), in 1999 gave rise to what has been called the third generation of industrial control systems.
This, in turn, yielded to the so-called “Industry 4.0” a decade into the 2000s as improvements in information technologies enabled the Internet of Things philosophy to be applied to industrial machinery.
“Technology advances include falling computing prices, the miniaturization of computers, increasing bandwidth, and the emergence of cloud computing,” write Owens and Frodl. “All of these technology trends together provided the tailwinds to launch the ‘Industrial Internet’.”
DIGITAL LIVING TODAY
The journey toward fully-realized digitalized power plants is, for many owners and operators, an incomplete one that might still take years to finish. That is not to say the first steps have not already been taken.
“Hydropower plants are already very much digitalized today,” said Voith Hydro President and Chief Executive Officer Uwe Wehnhardt.
Indeed, seeds are already being sown, although digital components presently often operate independently from one another, with installations as time or budgets dictate.
To draw a comparison with the “smart home” movement currently sweeping the consumer electronics sector, many plant operators are, in essence, replacing incandescent lightbulbs with app-connected LEDs, installing WI-FI enabled thermostats and considering Bluetooth-controlled deadbolts.
All of these separate systems offer some degree of convenience and potential cost savings, but none quite fulfill the Space Age promise of a house that would automatically unlock the doors, adjust the temperature and turn on the lights when it senses the owner’s car returning from a day out.
Applying this analogy to hydropower plants, comparable improvements — which range from air gap monitors to digital governors to monitoring software suites to everything in between — “improve overall unit efficiency through upgrades to turbines, draft tubes and other associated equipment,” according to Owens and Frodl.
However, their implementation thus far does not represent the full scope of digitalization’s potential.
Digitalization of key plant components could allow utilities to foresee impacts on the remaining life of a facility, and also increase its flexibility and expand its range of operations.
THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
While cloud-based connectivity is all but a mandatory selling point for many monitors, sensors and analytical software products on the market today, connectivity to the Internet of Things is only one component of a fully-
realized digital environment.
Rather, as written in a 2017 report compiled by consulting firm Navigant Research, “the end goal of a digital transformation is the complete overhaul of a business.”
In this model, digitalization would entail the creation of what Wehnhardt describes as a “digital twin” of a plant — one that would mirror all processes, products and services of a real-world facility.
“We now want to take our customers one step further and make their hydropower plants even more intelligent,” Wehnhardt said. “For us, digitalization goes far beyond the transition from analog to digital equipment. It is rather a form of using digital solutions to access and analyze the right data in order to derive actionable insights from them. As a result, hydropower plant operators can make the right decisions at the right time.”
This digital plant would, under ideal circumstances, see its genesis at the design stage, be used during construction, and then given to the owner in the project’s handoff for use as an operational asset.
The plant could then be accessed via desktop terminal, tablet, virtual reality headset or more, giving an operator the ability to control its systems and monitor its assets entirely within a perfectly mirrored electronic form.
“Our approach is that, together with our customers, we open up a pool of technical and system-relevant data securely in the cloud,” Wehnhardt said. “Then we visualize and analyze this data and develop self-learning models for well-founded and forward-looking decisions. These solutions would allow the early detection of impending problems and proactive maintenance measures.”
Aside from increasing the operational efficiencies of a single plant, digitalization would also enable an operator to more effectively run it in conjunction with other generating facilities.
This is particularly important as many utilities continue looking at hydro to help offset the intermittency of other renewables, such as wind and solar.
“What is more, digitalization creates new forms of interaction between man and machine on-site and pave the way for future operation and maintenance scenarios,” Wehnhardt said.
“Fully-digitalized systems also contain self-learning systems that intelligently support customers in strategic decisions and enable them to maximize the profit of their power plants.”
MAKING IT A REALITY
With a multitude of manufacturers currently providing equipment with some degree of connectivity, one of the bigger challenges is making sure everything functions together as a cohesive amalgamation.
Already, a number of companies are designing systems to bring everything together, while others have said they are working with others to minimize barriers that might limit a consumer to its own product ecosystem.
“The interoperability of components from different manufacturers is a very important aspect of the efficient use of the Internet of Things,” Wehnhardt said. “There’s barely a thing more harmful than the dependence on one manufacturer. It is therefore our strategy to consistently focus on open industry standards. Vendor-lock is something we absolutely want to spare our customers.”
Increased vulnerabilities to cyberattacks could also be a deterrent, with a recent survey of North American utilities by consulting firm Accenture LLC showing 17% of respondents more feared interruptions of service caused by cyberattacks than the destruction of physical assets.
Also, 77% of those polled indicated they perceive the growth of the Internet of Things as a possible threat to security.
In addition to potential technical hurdles, the cost of digitalization — projected by GE to be $90 billion worldwide by the end of the decade — is a significant barrier for some plant owners, particularly at a time when many utilities worldwide are facing flattening or declining growth.
At the same time, a recent Navigant report indicates onsite power systems, microgrids and other forms of decentralized power could remove about 6,000 MW — or $40 billion-worth — of business from utilities by 2020, making the decision to perform wholesale overhauls of existing assets potentially difficult to justify.
In fact, only a fraction of the utilities Navigant included in its study have already established a company-wide, executive-level strategy for approaching digitalization.
But, the long-term benefits as they pertain to the optimization of plant operations and maintenance, integration with variable generation and condition monitoring could take much of the sting out of digitalization’s upfront costs — particularly as it relates to plants that would be undergoing modernization regardless.
The reality, however, is that the age of the “smart” hydropower plant is not coming, but rather, is already here. All that remains to be seen is to how quickly operators embrace it, and, perhaps most importantly, to what extent.