GE managers talk cloud tech, power plant business, internet of things

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The long-term forecast for the energy utility industry is cloud-based with a guarantee of connection and change.

General Electric is certainly making a major wager on the future of predictive analytics and connected control systems across a wide range of assets, from power plants to the electric grid.

Many of these are part of a restructuring flowing out of GE’s $14 billion acquisition of French firm Alstom’s energy-based businesses which became effective in November 2015.

One of those new businesses is GE Automation & Controls, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based unit formed out of the combination of the former GE Intelligent Platforms and Alstom’s Power Automation & Controls.

GE oversees an installed base oversees an installed base of approximately 17,000 turbine control and distributed control systems in thermal power and oil and gas plants, as well as other products including wind-turbine power converters and pitch systems.

Chief technology officer Rod Rice and control platform product manager Rich Carpenter visited the Tulsa offices of POWERGRID International, Electric Light & Power and Power Engineering.

They talked bluntly about the “disruption” that technology is making on consumers and industries alike. They also gave a video interview with Power Engineering Chief Editor Russell Ray and Rod Walton, Senior Editor of POWERGRID International and Electric Light & Power.

“Probably for the first time in history in the last 10 years consumers were ahead of businesses in the use of technology,” Carpenter pointed out during the print interview. “That’s about to change.”

The new GE Automation & Controls is focused on several fronts, from predictive maintenance to the “cloud-edge paradigm.” The company’s software seeks to create “digital twins” of various power assets which can be used to take comparative data and predict when failures might occur.

This data is held in the digital “cloud,” or servers outside the power plant and other contained energy assets. Yet companies also need technology “on the edge” to allow real-time updates to the asset.

“We can virtually eliminate unplanned downtime,” Carpenter said with the combination of “cloud and edge.”

GE takes those pieces of the Alstom merger that connected the best this way, such as operating systems and controls, and applies them to create solutions for power generators. Another unit, GE Grid Solutions, formed out of GE Digital Energy and Alstom Grid, will focus on grid resiliency, demand resources and efficiencies.

“It marries rather well,” Rice said of the combination between GE Intelligent Platforms and the Alstom PAC. “The concept is to connect all of these devices to our predictive software. We can predict a failure and stop an event that would take a power plant down for a time.”

This is the concept of the “Industrial Internet of Things” which, similar to the home version, brings machines into the World Wide Web. GE is investing at least $1 billion in “edge” technologies, and has also hired about 200 data scientists to help sort analytics out as close to real-time as possible.

Major companies already are signed on to the GE predictive solutions, with the idea that even a two-percent gain in efficiency can pay off handsomely. This restructuring coming out of the GE-Alstom deal is a way for a massive company to display the dexterity of a startup, they say.

“We’re disrupting ourselves” with this business model, Carpenter noted. “We think it’s going to happen … either someone is going to disrupt us or we do it ourselves.”

Another front that GE Automation & Controls is ready to tackle is cybersecurity. Plant managers and utility owners certainly have reservations about letting someone duplicate their data off site in the cloud, but Rice argued that GE, which is also the manufacturer of so much of the equipment in a plant, can help protect it, too.

“The bad guys are looking all the time to infiltrate,” he said. “Our challenge is try and stay ahead of them.”

The “disruption,” as Carpenter called it, actually began with the smartphone and mobile computer devices.

“When we all got connected to the Internet through our phones, we all got smarter,” he said. “Machines are the same way. As we connect those machines they get smarter, as well.”

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