How digitalization helps steam power plant to stay relevant and profitable today

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How digitalization helps steam power plant to stay relevant and profitable today

In most of the world today, power producers are operating in uncertain times. As traditional operating models are upended by new sources of energy, particularly wind and solar, steam power plant operators find themselves running plant and equipment in ways never intended by their designers. This stresses not only the equipment but also budgets and resources. The uncertainty produced by today’s markets also leads to shifting priorities from management and a lack of operational predictability.

The result is an increasingly complex operating environment and a fragmented marketplace driven by inconsistent and fluctuating demand. Operators face new challenges every quarter. Deregulation, power trading, decentralized power markets, competition from renewables, price volatility, fast-ramping, a retiring workforce, the loss of institutional knowledge, and the constant threat of cyber attack are among the most critical of these challenges.

This is especially true in mature markets where many steam power plants operate as back-ups to a power grid increasingly supplied by renewables. This leads to an inefficient operation where plants must frequently ramp up and shut down as load demand fluctuates. In these markets, the days of plants operating continuously at base load are coming to an end.

In markets where steam power plants (i.e., fossil-fired boiler with steam turbine) still run at full capacity, optimizing performance to eliminate unplanned downtime, meet regulatory burdens and increase power output are still priorities that must be met, offering significant improvements in profitability.

In markets where plants participate in intra-day and day-ahead energy trading, providing reliable power generation schedules and the capability to deliver ancillary services, is the key to profitability.

Technology drivers and market demands

The advances in power plant control and optimization are being driven by a combination of technological (i.e., Internet of Things, cloud, faster computer processors, broadband networks, etc.) and market forces. Of these market forces, three are paramount: renewable generation, fuel costs, and environmental targets.

Renewable generating capacity is growing rapidly. At first in Europe and the US, but now in most parts of the globe. With high renewable energy, penetration comes greater challenges to grid management. For traditional baseload plants, this means changing output quickly. Only performance optimization solutions make this economical.

Global fuel prices are another factor. In order to maximize profits, all power plant operators want their plants to burn the least amount of fuel for the highest amount of energy output. This is a critical issue in some global power markets. In the US, for example, cheap natural gas from shale makes it increasingly difficult for coal plant operators to compete. While, in Europe, high natural gas prices are challenging gas-fired plant operators with the same problem.

In both cases, optimization that allows operators to maintain tight control over the combustion cycle while minimizing equipment stresses and holding maintenance costs down can be the difference between operating economically or not.

Finally, the same environmental concerns around climate change that have stimulated the rise in the renewable generation are driving de-carbonization of steam power plants. Much tighter emission restrictions increase cost pressures on older coal-fired plants in particular. Newer plants find compliance less of a burden, but cost control still depends on the effectiveness of control and optimization systems.

More about main qualities of Industrial IoT in the digital power plants

Digital solutions to common problems

The one thing all power generators in every market have in common is they are meeting these challenges head-on with digitalization. From integrated control systems drawing data from an army of sensors to remote collaborative management of operations from anywhere on the globe, digital is how operators reduce costs and increase margins. Also, you can check Four key challenges for power generation companies.

Advanced process control (APC) for power plants has become increasingly sophisticated over the past 20 years. Where once a power plant was controlled by an operator facing a bank of gauges and levers, today’s plant control systems run on real-time data from thousands of sources. Today’s operators serve more of an executive or orchestration role – overseeing operations to ensure safety and intervening only as needed. The result is more accurate control over all of a plant’s processes, not just a select few as in days past. APC and new digital solutions for power plants allow for greater optimization of a greater number of parameters, leading to higher efficiency and greater flexibility to meet market demands than ever before.

Read the How digitalization improves steam power plant performance with advanced process control white paper by ABB power generation and water unit, to find out more about the following topics:

  • How Advanced process control (APC) systems help operators meet new demands
  • Ways to lower maintenance expenses in a power plant
  • APC solutions for the real world
  • The role of Collaborative Operations in process control.

Further reading: AI enabled Plant Optimization


Marc AntoineMarc Antoine was recently appointed digital business line manager for BU Power Generation & Water within the Industrial Automation division at ABB. Marc joined the company in 1985. In recent years Marc held the role of software project manager for the operations layer (HSI) of the new control system in the BU. Prior to joining the digital team, Marc had the roles of technology program manager (R&D) and global product management for the service business in the BU.