Extracting the Value of DX in Power Generation

Kevin Worster, Head of Power and Renewables at Yokogawa.

Digital transformation (DX) holds great potential for businesses, not least for those in power generation that provide critical infrastructure to the wider economy. However, it’s fair to say even the most technically advanced organisations have only just begun their transformation journey and few complete use cases exist.

Given this opportunity, now seems an important time to analyse current approaches to DX and the common challenges faced by those working in power generation. In doing so, businesses will be able to determine their readiness for change and, more importantly, create a roadmap addressing their specific needs.

What’s Driving Change?

wind farm

Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, fossil-fuelled power plants faced significant disruption from the increased uptake of renewable energy sources and ambitious decarbonisation targets. While good news for the climate, this energy transition has issued an expiry date for a large amount of existing infrastructure. Businesses no longer want to invest in new plant upgrades, so they are turning to DX to sweat their assets before eventually shutting them down.   

Ageing workforces are another key driver, particularly at plants using fossil fuels. The energy transition is now leading many new colleagues to renewables, in turn threatening an entire generation of knowledge being lost. Well-executed DX programmes can eliminate these gaps in knowledge by making key processes and decision-making more intuitive for new entrants to the industry.  

Challenges

DX generates the most value when it offers something to stakeholders across the entire business. But getting to this point can be difficult when businesses fail to properly assess their current situation and account for the problems that could arise once solutions have been applied. Without question, data holds the key to a successful, modern power facility, but blind faith in this principle can lead some to adopt technology haphazardly. This approach will inevitably fall short of offering any real value if the raw data collected cannot be interpreted in a meaningful way, leaving businesses with an expensive but ultimately useless system. Indeed, if a basic truth exists in DX, it’s that data and information should not be treated as one and the same. 

Similar problems can be seen with legacy assets like those found in older coal and gas plants. Data can be collected out of most gateways with the introduction of hardware at relatively little cost. Yet, this won’t be necessary in most cases as the equipment will already be monitoring and storing it elsewhere. Historians are often full of useful data – it just needs to be rationalised and presented in an intelligible way so informed decisions can be made.

It’s not hard to see why most would assume older plants are the main barrier, but legacy assets are less of a problem when compared to legacy data For example, in a previous role I worked on a DX programme with a major airport. Early readiness assessments uncovered a large number of disparate databases, many of which were difficult to decipher or inaccessible to the wider business. Major inefficiencies like this are common and serve to highlight the importance of people and processes when designing an effective programme.

Most organisations simply have too much information flooding into their ERP or CMS, but it’s the lack of structure creates longer-lasting challenges. ‘Siloed’ databases are entirely reliant on the person who first created them, leaving key decisions in the hands of a single person or small team who could leave with little notice. Even if these spreadsheets are accessible to other colleagues, there’s no guarantee the data engineers use will be coherent or actionable for other key decision-makers, like the CFO or COO.  

Thinking Holistically

DX is complex, though many of its challenges can be avoided providing businesses engage an experienced consultancy. Yokogawa, for example, has worked on major digital strategies across industry, including oil and gas, chemical and utilities, giving it a unique insight into the digital needs of different markets. The success of this work has been down to a holistic approach that assesses each organisation on its own terms, incorporating people and processes alongside technology rather than applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

This overview only touches on the key points but gives some idea of the preparation necessary to deliver value in today’s power market. DX is a disruptive exercise but one that is vital for the future. Not only does it maximise return on assets planned for phase-out, but also lays the groundwork for distributed, weather-dependent production that will take centre stage in the coming years.   

For more information visit: https://www.yokogawa.com/uk/industries/renewable-energy/#Resources