How digital transformation is reshaping the energy industry

By Mark Homer
Time seems to go faster as we get older, but it’s moving even faster in tech. A year in the digital age is more akin to dog years than human years...

Time seems to go faster as we get older, but it’s moving even faster in tech. A year in the digital age is more akin to dog years than human years. Case in point: back in 2013, GE economist Marco Annunziato delivered a TED talk discussing the significant improvements that can be made in the power industry and the resulting benefits. Improvements of a mere one percent in all of the world's industrial assets raises the potential of over $60bn in gains for the power industry, over a 15-year period. In 2013, very little was known about the internet of things (IoT) and its potential impact on industry. Not anymore. Now it’s redefining the way power plants and assets are monitored, serviced and managed. That’s tech (dog) years for you.

The disruptive changes of digital transformation are currently sweeping through the energy industry. Increased use of renewables, resiliency issues and sustainability concerns are just a few of the drivers behind the industry’s need to transform - and digitisation is the single biggest enabler of that change. The digital age has not only brought us a 'digital twin' version of the physical power plant that monitors every asset, but it’s also capable of providing an intelligent response with analytics that trigger the appropriate actions from a service and maintenance perspective.

As power companies become more agile at managing production and supply better, there will be improvements in both distribution and management, and of course end user consumption as a result. The ability to develop plans based on real time data analytics will be revolutionary.

Power companies will be able to explore new opportunities that could improve efficiencies further, using data analytics to model new tactics and solutions. Distributed generation for example, where companies can shift power production closer to the point of consumption through solar tiles or wind farms, all becomes possible because the technology is now intelligent enough to plan, service and manage even the remotest of assets.

While some power companies may think they are already doing this efficiently, just two percent of data is captured in the energy sector and what is captured is not done through automation. Increased automation, certainly the use of sensors on turbines, for example, could not just identify how to squeeze more power out of existing machinery, but also keep an eye on the performance and potential failure of equipment. It’s about making plants smart, capable of reacting to change more efficiently, in terms of cost and capacity.

This solves a whole host of problems for power companies, but field service and maintenance – traditionally one of the biggest cost overheads in keeping assets running – is one of the biggest areas of return. Understanding the performance of machinery at any point in time and being alerted to the potential failure of parts has significant advantages. Sensors can now monitor burners and generators in real time sending data back over a cloud-based IT system to a central data pool, from where data is analysed automatically by specialist software. Field service teams have intelligence at their fingertips, often knowing in advance which particular piece of machinery is likely to fail and which part is needed, reducing wasted time and costs and more importantly downtime.

According to the World Economic Forum, utilities are improving uptime and reducing overall maintenance costs by deploying predictive maintenance analytics. This, says the WEF, increases the 'quantity and quality of maintenance schedules'. It cites PPL Electric reporting a 38 percent improvement in service reliability through improved analytics.

For the power industry, digital transformation, combined with IoT connected field service offers both a short and long term solution to coping with varying regulatory and pricing demands of the market, and managing costs, uptime and service more predictably. Digital transformation has opened new windows of opportunity for those that embrace them. But in the same way innovation gets faster and the competitive gap gets wider with digital transformation, the lag time for those late to respond and catch-up gets slower, and market share gets narrower.

Mark Homer is Vice President Global Customer Transformation for ServiceMax, a GE Digital company.


Read the March 2017 edition of Energy Digital magazine

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