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Digitalization

Digital services in power generation

Tim Holt, the CEO of the Siemens Power Generation Services Division, explains how digitalization and innovative analytical tools are offering customers immense opportunities to improve flexibility, efficiency, and productivity in turbine applications.

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.

Digitalization opens the door to preventative maintenance: Access to real time data means faults can be detected early.

 

That’s all made certain key requirements more important than ever. Paramount is the flexibility for turbines to be fired when electricity prices are highest and for greater choice around the timing of service intervals to guarantee availability. Granular data monitoring also means the life span of expensive capital equipment can potentially be prolonged thanks to more careful usage over the years. And digitalization also opens the door to preventative maintenance: Access to real time data means faults can be detected early and expensive downtime or catastrophic failures nipped in the bud.

How accepting have customers been, in an understandably conservative industry, about the opportunities offered?


Power generation is a conservative industry, but much
is changing. Some countries, for example, have encouraged new, nontraditional investors into the business. Such independent power producers may own only one generating asset and tend to be much more financially driven than traditional utilities. That makes them intensely focused on costs and more open to new ideas.

But there are also changing attitudes among more traditional customers, desperate to gain a competitive edge. That’s partly competitive, but also generational, with a younger generation of managers at many utilities. Such executives are often more comfortable with digitalization and big data. Even among older colleagues, the forced transformation of power station economics has prompted greater openness.

How are new types of service contracts building a new supplier-customer relationship based on greater trust and closer links?


Traditionally, there was something of an arm’s-length relationship. Routine servicing would be scheduled far in advance and at preset intervals – say 25,000 hours for gas turbines. Of course, there would also be occasional unplanned visits to tackle any faults in daily operations. Digitalization means we can offer much more flexibility in both settings. Scheduled servicing can take place much more accurately, based on the real-time information being provided by all sensors. So timing becomes more a matter of choice for an operator. That’s particularly valuable at a period of peak demand, such as summer in the USA, when electricity prices reach seasonal highs. At such periods, it suits generators to keep their turbines running and postpone scheduled maintenance. Our sensors and analytical tools can judge whether that’s advisable, offering the operator much more flexibility – and profit.

Our sensors and analytical tools offer the operator much more flexibility – and profit.

 

The same applies to other parameters. The information provided by digitalization means a turbine can be “overfired” – in other words, run above its ideal capability – to meet demand peaks. Overfiring may be costly in terms of extra wear and tear and maintenance. But, thanks to the data available, operators can make a well-informed decision about the marginal profit potential against any likely extra cost. The same applies to “underfiring.” In the past, the lack of data and appropriate analytical tools meant an operator never had such options.

So nonstop data flows have allowed a much more frequent and intense relationship with the customer. That’s to everyone’s advantage. The more insights we have, the lower the likely costs for the customer will be. We’re increasingly becoming “trusted partners.”

But isn’t access to intellectual property an issue?


That depends on the customer and the country. Different customers allow differing levels of access, from full availability of all raw data in real time, to a single download at the end of each working day, or access only to certain main operating parameters. Some customers also worry about the competitive risks of releasing proprietary information. Of course, we reassure them about the thickness of our firewalls as well as the robustness of our data protection systems. And obviously, the greatest benefit comes through being able to see the entire flow.

What about cybersecurity?


This is becoming a major concern. Having a safe and stable electricity supply is a crucial national requirement, meaning any threat is a matter of national importance. We’re confident we have access to some of the best cybersecurity technology available, including innovations developed by other parts of Siemens. Our “security-by-design” and “defense-in-depth” approach focuses on assessing, implementing, verifying, and managing the security of both data and physical assets.

What are the risks to suppliers and service providers of performance-based service contracts?


It’s already been 10 to 15 years since so called contracts per fired hour were brought in. Of course, that carries more risk. But you just need to be better at risk management. Such changes also bring opportunities if we can really help customers improve their efficiency.

Additive manufacturing could potentially transform servicing. To what extent is it already reshaping business?


We’re still in the early days; it’s a technology very much at the forefront of change. But the possibilities are endless. Most obviously for us, additive manufacturing can reduce service and spare parts lead times immensely, and at the same time improve technology performance. Burner tips in gas turbines, for example, have limited lives.

Additive manufacturing is a technology very much at the forefront of change. But the possibilities are endless.

 

Additive manufacturing means we can vastly reduce replacement times, and incorporate design improvements as well. And, of course, it helps us in our own prototyping and design, meaning we can bring innovations to market much more quickly.

What do you see as your biggest challenges in your job?


Deregulation has brought bigger risks for customers, requiring us to devise ever more innovative solutions. Then there’s the challenge of renewables, which has led to a dramatic shift in the generation mix. And finally, advances in information technology have opened the door to new data analysis techniques, enabling us to be much more innovative. My task is to persuade people to trust the data. It’s a learning experience for some.

Haig Simonian is a freelance journalist based in Zurich.
Picture credits: Christian Jungeblodt