The Magazine: What’s been behind digitalization, and how have things changed from the past in power generation?
Tim Holt: There have been three key developments. First is the transformation of sensor technology thanks to microprocessors. Basic monitoring of temperature and pressure existed for years. But sensors have now become much smaller, tougher, and able to communicate. Miniaturization means they can now be installed in places they couldn’t before, and robustness means they can go into much harsher environments. Wireless communications technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi mean they can also transmit data without any inconvenient cables. Just getting the signals was hard in the past.
Microprocessors have also become much cheaper and are often available off the shelf rather than having to be tailor-made. Which made them much pricier. So cost, too, has spurred vastly increased usage.
With all the real time data now available, we’re much more aware of how turbines are performing. The basic principles remain fundamentally the same: a rotating system coupled to a generator. And there were always certain core parameters, like RPM, temperatures in and out, emissions, and operating efficiency. But what’s changed now is that we can monitor and analyze all manner of data flows constantly.
How does that improve customers’ productivity?
The key word is flexibility. As the electricity-generating market has been transformed, so have generators’ requirements. Gas turbines are relatively flexible, especially compared with a huge coal or nuclear plant. So they could ramp up or ramp down as necessary, depending on demand. Now, though, especially with the arrival of renewables, which are inherently volatile, gas turbines need to be even more flexible. But that operational flexibility must also be measured against ensuring the lowest costs and the lowest emissions.
So the rise of digitalization and change in the service-customer relationship is part of the broader transformation of the power generation industry under liberalization and other changes?
Absolutely. Look at it from the operators’ point of view. In Europe, there have been huge changes, notably some countries’ shift from nuclear to renewables, with the main result being ever increasing pressure on costs. In the Middle East the top priority remains security of supply. Even the oil and gas industries, which are big turbine users, are undergoing massive changes.