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Our Path to the Power Plant of the Future – Power Plant 4.0

“Can you imagine running an entire combined cycle power plant with no staff?” One of our colleagues welcomed us into the office with this question a while ago. The question had come up when customers expressed this need due to increasing competitive pressure in their markets.

Even though this idea had already been floated in the past, my team members and I were quiet for a moment. We thought about the huge challenge that planning and constructing an autonomous power plant would entail. There was also the question of whether a safe and reliable operation could also comply with all the necessary regulatory requirements. But then a colleague remarked that if Siemens can put a completely driverless metro train on the rails, which happened about ten years ago in Nuremberg, or construct production systems where goods can be produced with intelligent production lines – then this company could also develop an autonomous power plant. The huge number of digital solutions for power plants that we already have in place today or the near future would certainly help support its creation.

Market requirements

The most important thing when developing new solutions is to start thinking from the perspective of market requirements. We asked ourselves if there will be a general demand for autonomous or at least partly-/mostly- autonomous power plants. While the benefits clearly lie in cost savings and increased efficiency based on intelligent planning, there would also be reservations, especially concerning the safety and reliability of a solution like this.

The most important reason that we can foresee a demand is the comprehensive transformation occurring throughout the whole energy landscape that we see in nearly every market. First the operating regimes of conventional power plants have changed significantly. They serve more and more as back-up solution for renewable energies and less as base load plants. It can be an economical challenge to hold staff ready around the clock for a plant that runs only a few hours per week. Second, the shift from a manageable number of central, large-scale power plants to small and decentral power generation units makes the operation of the power generation infrastructure much more complicated. A much larger number of units need to be operated, while in many markets the competition is increasing due to the privatization of the power sector. Third, some markets or regions also lack qualified operating and maintenance personnel.

Five solution packages for the Power Plant 4.0

In fact, today we already see a number of “autonomous” power plants – but these are mainly small photovoltaic or wind units lacking a complex combustion process or a few open cycle plants that don’t require real-time monitoring and where the solution is primarily based on remote operation capabilities. The automation of complete combined cycle, biomass, or industrial steam power plants, for example, is a completely different challenge. The extreme complexity of the entire process in these plants would require comprehensive domain, context and digitalization expertise to develop a concept for their autonomous operation.

We used our comprehensive expertise to define five solution packages that would be necessary for autonomous power plant operation: the Power Plant 4.0. To be precise, our concept doesn’t propose 100 percent autonomous operation with no personnel present. Like a driverless metro train, the plant could be monitored and controlled from a remote and / or central control room, and some manual work would still be required which would be efficiently planned. And compared with a conventional plant, no one needs to be continuously on-site.

The first solution package includes complete remote operability from a central control room. This proven and safe feature of Siemens’ SPPA-T3000 control system is the foundation of the concept. To this is added mobile remote condition monitoring that uses a comprehensive sensor system to replace the manual control operations, among other things. The third element is combining all data sources, which creates data transparency for subsequent analyses, forecasts, and maintenance recommendations – also available within our Omnivise Digital Services Portfolio. Fourth, the work that the local operators must perform then focuses on the prepared list of recommended actions and the necessary maintenance activities. The continuous availability of all plant data from a digital operation management system as the fifth and unifying element completes the concept.

What are your requirements?

Our autonomous power plant / Power Plant 4.0 hasn’t been built yet, but we’re convinced that it will be in the near future. Our company’s comprehensive digitalization expertise has already made many “4.0 innovations” possible that were previously unthinkable – until we created them. During many digitalization projects we also learned to first listen to our customers and develop the best possible solutions together.

Of course, safety and reliability always need to be the top priority in every automation project. But by bringing the right experts together and combining Siemens’ century-long domain knowledge with the latest digitalization expertise, sometimes it’s possible to realize the unthinkable.

What are your requirements for a power plant in the 4.0 era? I’m looking forward to your comments!

I’d like to thank Andreas Huber, Customer Engagement Manager at Siemens Gas and Power, for his collaboration on this blog.