By Robert Evatt
Though the power industry continues to endure rapid change in technology, demand and regulation, the five keynote speakers at POWER-GEN International 2017 focused on making the most of a changing market through convergence and collaboration.
Blake Moret, president and CEO of Rockwell Automation, said the convergence of automation and industrial operations requires strong hardware and software – but also people who can understand them both.
“One of the particular challenges that affects this industry and many others is the demand for skilled labor,” he said. “People who want to do this type of work and people who are comfortable with interacting with industrial control equipment.”
As a result, Rockwell encourages the concept of lifelong learning to its employees and clients in order to become more agile and integrate both IT and OT as they both continue to evolve.
Automation isn’t an instant process – companies must take the time to identify their problems, conduct studies, identify results and find ways to scale them across their entire fleet.
Though the challenge may seem daunting, industrial automation benefits companies by identifying ways to make operations more efficient. Moret said his company can typically lower downtime by 50 percent and increase efficiency by 25 percent.
“As we simplify these processes, we can find more ways to be more productive,” he said.
Paul Browning, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas, came to POWER-GEN with a surprise announcement – the company has officially broken ground on the world’s first 65 percent efficient combined-cycle power plant that will be capable of fully autonomous operations. That 600 MW system should be ready by 2020.
Though the dramatic drop in the cost of electricity from renewable sources has been well-documented, Browning said natural gas has experienced a similar drop in cost, with an estimated drop of 12 percent each year over the last decade. Natural gas now produces electricity at $41 per MWh.
In some cases, the cost drop has been even more extreme. MHPS recently helped the Grand River Dam Authority replace its coal-fired Unit 3 with a gas-fired turbine that is the company’s first J-class turbine in North America.
“The delivered cost of electricity from that plant is less than the rail costs of coal deliveries alone,” Browning said.
Most nations of the world have signed up for ambitious carbon reduction goals via the Paris Agreement, and carbon emissions from China have started to peak. However, Browning noted that the power industry has already lowered carbon dioxide emissions by 24 percent since 2005. Studies indicate 40 percent of that was from renewables, 53 percent from a switch from coal to natural gas and the remainder is from the natural gas fleet becoming more efficient.
“This change was driven not by politics, but by markets and technology,” he said.
Even developing nations have started to switch from purchasing the less-advanced offerings from MHPS to the company’s more efficient technologies.
Stan Connally, chairman, president and CEO of Gulf Power, said Southern Company, parent company of Gulf Power, is now concentrating on finding more ways to fill in the value chain for their customers.
“Our relationship with the customer is changing,” he said. “The meter itself used to be a one-way device. Now it can provide information to the customer behind it in ways we hadn’t imagined.”
That’s motivated Southern to undertake acquisitions and create Southern Company Gas, a distribution company, and PowerSecure, an energy solutions provider.
In particular, PowerSecure provides distributed generation, fuel cells, energy storage and microgrids to better provide customers with on-site solutions. Connally said that, on average, PowerSecure’s 800 employees in Florida maintained 98 percent reliability during Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. That provided Southern Company with even more data on how to help its customers.
“Florida was the epicenter of our learning this year,” he said.
Stefan Bird, president and CEO of Pacific Power, said his company has strongly embraced wind and solar power, and is in the process of repowering its entire existing wind fleet to further take advantage of renewable generation.
However, that has presented a problem, as wind and solar power generation isn’t constant. Wind generators can go from zero generation to full capacity and back multiple times per day.
Though one popular solution is energy storage, Bird touted diversification as a way to keep power flowing even when certain resources are at rest.
“If you can put together a portfolio with uncorrelated assets, you have much lower risk,” Bird said.
Part of that diversification comes from Pacific Power’s membership in the Western Energy Imbalance Market. Under this system, participants import and export energy as needed on a minute-to-minute basis to keep power flow constant. For example, California exports surplus power during the day thanks to its strong solar generation, while importing power at night from windier areas that are still generating.
Bird estimated Pacific Power alone has saved $250 million in three years thanks to the arrangement.
But even coal can become a flexible resource, as he said Pacific Power has improved its equipment and controls to be able to ramp up and down more closely to changing power needs than the company has been able to in the past.
J. Patrick Kennedy, CEO at OSIsoft, said his operational intelligence company has run into the issue of software increasing much faster than the devices they’re meant to optimize. The power generation industry is no different.
“At the end of the day, customers want to lower the cost of power,” he said. “And it takes very sophisticated systems to do that.”
To give just one example, Kennedy said his company sourced battery storage for the construction for its new headquarters. At first, the battery cost $500,000, but before the project was finished, that cost dropped to less than half that.
“Every incremental drop in price of a solar cell, a battery or any other device will end up doubling and tripling the volume of these things,” he said.
That increased volume will help explode the amount of potential data points that can be measured. Though Kennedy said people tout that one trillion devices are waiting to enter the cloud, that doesn’t count the data already there and all kinds of sensors that haven’t been imagined yet.
Additionally, all that data will have multiple ownership rights, especially as increasing technology leads vendors to manage the products they supply. With the power industry, data ownership could change along with hourly changes in power needs and production.
However, Kennedy said that future technology isn’t impossible to predict, and his company and its clients don’t have to wait for trends to emerge before becoming prepared.
“What becomes dominant sits in the market 30 years before that,” he said. It just hasn’t been perfected. Everything we have to support exists today. Now we have to find out what we have to support.”