Remote work has never been more on the minds and in the lives of people around the world than in the last two years. Similarly, out of the public eye, power plants have been quietly continuing to move towards remote operations as well.
In fact, just as the pandemic forced many businesses to examine the possibility of remote work when it had only been previously considered as a possibility at some point in the distant future, so too, did power plants. Faced with social distancing protocols and illness among workers in the last two years has led them to take a more serious look at automating more functions.
As more functions become automated and controlled through centralized locations, the more the road is paved for the endgame: autonomous power plant operations. But before we get there, let’s look at why now is, more than ever, the right time for remotely-operated power plants.
The pandemic highlighted a problem that has been building for some time now: skilled workers are retiring and the rising generation seems to have less of an inclination towards traditional shift-based power plant work. During the pandemic, plants already had to figure out how to operate with fewer people on-site for various reasons.
Now, you can’t just wish remote operations into existence. There are a few must-haves before you can even start moving in that direction:
- Reliable sensor and diagnostic equipment
- A stable and secure high bandwidth Internet connection
- Advanced security protocols
- Sophisticated systems
When all these items are in place, power plants can look at housing off-site teams in a central location (Remote Operations and Maintenance Support Centers: ROMSC) to manage one plant or an entire fleet of plants. These teams can support and learn from one another while providing 24/7-365 support to any on-site team members. The concentration of experience in one location with access to rich data leads to spotting issues before they turn into major problems.
Both on and off-site team members will also need rapid and secure access to:
- Root cause analysis
- Maintenance and operational history
Those team members will also be supported by technology, allowing a data-rich interaction. Think helmets with cameras, lenses with AR technology, speech recognition software at points of interaction. Such technology can help with routine troubleshooting and inspection activities, like combustion tuning, for example. Using AR technology in tandem with on-site team members, off-site team members can work on multiple issues at multiple locations, all without the friction and time loss of travel to those locations.
By using sensors and other automated technology to handle repetitive tasks that are often prone to errors, like record-keeping, on-site operators are freed up to focus on tasks that are more challenging to automate.
Furthermore, by moving to more remote operations, power plants are not just protecting against staff shortages in recruiting or even against pandemics. This also provides protection against civil and social unrest or weather events that can prevent team members from getting to the plant.
"Utilities feel that the rising generation is not interested in 24/7 energy shift work."Stefan Schaab, Head of Operations and Maintenance Asset Management, Siemens Energy
By utilizing more automation in the systems we mentioned above, more data can be aggregated which can then be used to offer data-driven risk assessments. This allows engineers to predict when issues may occur and adjust to a revised condition-based maintenance schedule.
Maintenance has traditionally been scheduled on an interval basis, but with the right data and appropriate monitoring, maintenance can now be done when it’s actually needed—not on a fixed schedule which may or may not make sense for operational needs.
The path to automated power plants is paved with automated controls and systems. For example, modern gas turbines utilize complex airflows to manage energy inputs to the power turbine and perform critical cooling of critical rotating and stationary turbine components.
The precise control of these airflows affects combustion stability and combined cycle system efficiency. In the past, these would often be manually controlled. Automation not only frees up on-site workers for other tasks, but utilizing data analysis allows for process automation and optimization.
As we’ve alluded to, the journey from remote operation to autonomy has several steps, and one of the last steps in the journey is the use of AI.
The journey begins with advanced monitoring (more data). It continues with advanced controls (better decision-making), then moves to remote operation (use of advanced automation with human monitoring). The journey ends with autonomous operations (when AI makes the decisions that human monitors might have made in the previous step).
In order to make this work, three systems have to be in place AND integrated optimally:
- Technical system — this refers to how assets and resources are configured and optimized to create value and minimize losses. Examples include predictive maintenance and automated workflows.
- Management system — these are the structures, processes, and systems through which resources are managed in support of the operating system. Examples include live dashboards and cross-functional teams.
- People system — this is how people think, feel, and conduct themselves in the workplace, both individually and collectively.
How Siemens Energy Is Participating
We are currently building a 300 MW gas-fired power plant in Leipheim, Bavaria. We will operate it remotely from our ISO-certified ROMSC in Erlangen (also in Bavaria).
The plant is due to become operational by the end of summer 2023 and will be run by a two-person team during the day shift, with control and monitoring offered by the ROMSC. That day shift will be equipped with some of the technologies we’ve already mentioned, like a helmet-mounted camera, but also microphones and headsets working over a secure internet connection. They and the ROMSC team will be interacting with software that has speech recognition as well as AI and AR functionalities.
We know that the move to autonomous power plants is an inevitable one given the momentum and progress that has been made in the last two decades. It was given an unexpected push by a worldwide pandemic, and we’re excited to see what the next two decades hold.
"There is always the fear of doing something for the first time in remotely-operated power."Arik Ott, Portfolio Manager Autonomous Operations, Siemens Energy