Solar powers Middle East electricity show 1
Power plants are ripe for an upgrade... not just in switching to renewable energy to power them but in using advanced tech to operate. Image Credit: Supplied

The energy sector stands at the intersection of many disruptions.

It is tasked with integrating increasing volumes of renewable energy into grids designed for thermal energy. With Saudi Arabia committing to powering half its energy needs from renewables, the presence of green energy on the grid will continue to ramp up exponentially.

The UAE is working to increase the proportion of clean energy in its energy mix to 50 per cent by 2050. Being far more variable than the comparatively more stable thermal energy, renewables necessitate energy systems that can predict power generation throughout the day, respond flexibly to day-long demand fluctuations and address the need for technical support.

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Connect to data 'grid'

Utility executives - who have witnessed Big Data’s transformative impact across industries - are now asking for similar digital-powered insights on operating and maintaining plants. Such insights are critical to achieving the power sector’s larger goal – to develop innovative generation technologies that enable the decarbonization of energy and deliver reliable power everywhere.

Energy systems need a radically different approach in these evolving times – a fact that underlines the relevance of digital transformation. Companies that have onboarded Industry 4.0 technologies are reaping the benefits.

Cost benefits are tangible

Control upgrades and analytics are enabling operations and maintenance optimization, performance improvements, flexible operations, and, more critical than ever, cybersecurity protection. According to a report by Ventures Onsite for Middle East Electricity, deployment of smart grids will save Gulf countries up to $10 billion in infrastructural investment this year.

However, when we consider the transformational speed at which the sector must evolve to be able to address multiple needs, there is much more to be done. The thousands of sensors that dot contemporary power plants are a potential goldmine of opportunity.

Yet, the constant feed of millions of data points per minute is too massive to understand, even for a plant fully staffed by experts. This is the perfect job for cognitive technologies like AI and Machine Learning (ML), which is why we have built innovative energy solutions designed to assist operators with quicker access to critical data and insights like O&M (operation and maintenance) manuals and turbine settings.

All in the networks

Ultimately, increased digitalization of a plant’s interconnected devices and systems - together with cognitive technologies - can help plants do much more with less. In numbers, these benefits translate into tens of millions of dollars per year in savings, while keeping a constant balance between energy supply and demand.

Connected through an all-pervasive layer of networked technologies, a plant's many individual systems can work together. This is, by definition, a largely autonomous plant, one that will need to be alert to the vulnerabilities of power generation.

The Internet of Things (IoT) – an autonomous plant’s connective tissue – also makes it susceptible to cyber threats. To counter them, new plants will have layers of always-on and regularly updated cybersecurity.

Get right people

To ensure system-wide resilience in any situation, they will also need dedicated staff who thoroughly understand the plant’s baseline operations. This synergy of people and processing power is vital in responding to the stream of recommendations that cognitive technologies constantly create.

People with legacy experience in the generation sector will play a very important role in determining how digital efficiencies translate into better customer experiences.

The transition to the “power plant of the future” will not happen overnight but in steps, whose cadence will be shaped by the stage of digital transformation plants are in. In the short-term, employees must be able to work productively from home if required and securely access information from data networks.

Secondly, data on plant operations should be remotely accessible in real-time so that recommendations are actioned. The third step – the apex of the transformation – is the direct “offsite” control of the plant, that requires two-way cybersecure communications and autonomous decision-making by the plant.

Considered a futuristic concept just four years ago, this third step is already becoming a reality in Japan. A power plant in Takasago, Japan is now a validation platform for the most efficient gas turbines in the world, and features all the initial building blocks of the world’s first autonomous power plant.

Leveraging ML, AI, smart sensors and data management systems, the plant will soon begin to deploy real-time adaptive control and actionable knowledge on its own, and emerge as the world's first autonomous power plant.

- Khalid Salem is President of Mitsubishi Power MENA.