Alstom plus digitisation: GE transforms its services offering

29 August 2016

The purchase of Alstom’s power businesses has increased the scope of GE’s service activities, greatly expanding its presence in coal/lignite/biomass generation. GE sees big opportunities here for improving the performance of the existing fleet via digital means, and has recently launched what it calls the Digital Power Plant for Steam. James Varley reports.

As previously reported in Modern Power Systems (eg, October 2015 edition, pp 38-39) GE cannot be accused of holding back in engaging with the digital transformation, spotting some time ago the huge potential of combining big data and digitisation with big metal, and currently billing itself as “the world’s digital industrial company.” The acquisition of Alstom’s power businesses has added a good deal of very big metal to the GE portfolio and the powerful synergies between GE’s digital initiatives and Alstom’s reach into a wide range of power technologies, including coal and biomass as well as gas, are becoming increasingly apparent, notably in the services side of the business.

Digital steam plant

At its Mind and Machine event in Paris in June, GE unveiled what it calls the Digital Power Plant for Steam, which is essentially a suite of software applications (running on GE’s Predix, “an operating system built exclusively for industry”) that enable the large amounts of data produced by thousands of sensors in coal plants to be managed, made sense of, stored and put to good use in improving performance and reducing emissions. It is estimated that less than 5% of the data generated in a typical coal plant today is being used. Cloud-based Predix makes it possible to deal with these massive quantities of data. It is also an open platform, with developers encouraged to come up with bright ideas that enable the data to be used ever more intelligently.

The software applications for coal plants currently in the Digital Power Plant package include the following:

  • Asset Performance Management for the Digital Steam Plant – An application that continuously monitors steam plant equipment health, enabling operating teams to make decisions that enhance plant performance, reduce unplanned downtime and extend plant life with minimal capital investment, GE says.
  • Operations Optimization for the Digital Steam Plant – An application that provides plant and fleet-wide visibility of the impact of operational decisions on efficiency, emissions, capacity and production costs. Capabilities/features include:
    • Boiler Optimization – Software improves boiler reliability and efficiency, and can reduce CO2 by 1-2% and NOx by 10-15% through integrated enhancement of the combustion and soot cleaning processes.
    • Fuel Analyser – Enhances plant performance by tuning combustion and exhaust management processes based on fuel properties such as moisture content. This can reduce fuel consumption by some 4400 tons of coal per year with the same MW of output in a single steam power plant, says GE.
    • Plant Optimization – A “digital twin” of the physical steam plant that is continuously monitored to identify gaps between actual and ideal performance relative to key performance indicators such as output or emissions, enabling tuning of a plant to increase efficiency, with a 1% efficiency increase corresponding to a benefit of about $20 million over 10 years for a typical plant, GE calculates.
    • FlexiLoad – Improves load change performance, helping the operator increase speed to grid, with reduced impact on asset life and fuel consumption.
  • Business Optimization for the Digital Steam Plant – An application that aggregates information such as fuel and power price, demand, and plant capacity, enabling energy traders make better buying and selling decisions.

With the ability to monitor and analyse data from more than 10 000 sensor inputs across the plant, GE says the “Digital Power Plant for Steam helps plant operators make smarter decisions about how to optimally run their power plants, achieving better performance, greater efficiency and improved reliability while lowering environmental impact.”

The Digital Power Plant for Steam interprets data drawn from the sensors, highlights key factors that may affect performance (such as fuel quality, plant aging and ambient conditions) and is able to take appropriate action through a closed loop control system. GE says, overall, the new software can reduce CO2 emissions from typical coal plants by 3% and reduce fuel consumption by around 105 000 tons of coal per year with the same MW of output, based on a 1000 MW power plant.

GE believes its Digital Power Plant software “can enhance the performance and reduce emissions of almost all steam plants – including non-GE and legacy Alstom plants – commissioned in the past 25 years.”

Following the Alstom acquisition, gas fired generating plants now account for less than 50% of GE’s power services business revenues, says Pascal Schweitzer, formerly Alstom and now general manager, Europe, GE Power Services, while the range of activities has expanded significantly, with the company now able to service over 90 different OEM brands of power plant equipment, including steam turbines and boilers, thanks to the portfolio built up by Alstom over the years through purchases. Combined with GE’s digital expertise, this gives the company “the opportunity to build a unique service provider”, he believes, able to take on pretty much any plant type and considerably improve its competiveness by looking at the total plant, working across all equipment, and “leveraging data”. “In today’s power market, only the most competitive will be dispatched” and “software can greatly improve competitiveness”.

Making coal smarter

GE points out that coal is currently generating about 40% of the world’s electricity and coal generation will remain significant for many years to come. In particular it will continue to be seen as a critical source of reliable and affordable electricity in developing economies such as India, China, the Middle East and Africa, and is not likely to disappear any time soon from countries such as Poland, Turkey and Greece.

The ability of nations to meet emissions goals set out in the Paris COP21 agreement, while meeting growing demand for electricity, will depend on the ability of fossil fuel-powered plants, including those running on coal, to deliver power more flexibly, responsively and cleanly, GE believes.

“In a post COP21 world, we believe the best results will come from balancing a mix of fuel sources and creating maximum efficiency through the power of digital,” said Andreas Lusch, also formerly Alstom and now president and CEO of GE Steam Power Systems. “By combining the physical strengths of our legacy Alstom steam technologies with GE’s industry-leading digital capabilities, we can help our customers enhance the operating performance of their power plants to increase efficiency, lower emissions and reduce cost.”

Operating coal plants are typically relatively old (50% of active units in Europe are more than 25 years old), systems are highly complex and average efficiency rates are low.

Using a digital model of a coal plant it is possible to do “what if” experiments, says Sébastien Desvignes, chief digital officer, GE Steam Power Systems, another former Alstom manager, “comparing actual performance with should-be performance.”

Digitisation can also help coal plants significantly increase operational flexibility. They can’t be as flexible as CCGT plants but ramp rates can be increased by about 20%, says Desvignes. For example, “the system guides the operator to pre-warm the coal mills at the optimal time, and to inject additional coal into the boiler at precisely the right time.”

An experienced operator can of course achieve some degree of optimisation, he acknowledges. But “if you look at the huge number of operating parameters in a typical coal plant it is simply not possible to master them all.” In the case of boiler optimisation, an operator might be working with three or so variables, “whereas GE’s digital approach provides a boiler optimisation tool that operates with 40-50 parameters and is coupled to the plant via closed loop control.”

The digitised flexible coal plant could be described as “smart coal”, says Desvignes, and “the beauty of digital is that it is mainly software”, so no big equipment is needed, just a few servers, maybe, plus robust cyber security, of course.

Recent examples of how GE’s digital technology for coal plants is being deployed in the field are projects in India and Pakistan.

In India, GE has signed an MoU with TAQA Neyveli power company to pilot a Digital Power Plant for Steam project at its 250 MW coal-fired plant in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu. GE is providing Asset Performance Management and Operations Optimisation digital suites to help TAQA reduce carbon dioxide emissions while generating the same amount of power, improving heat rate, reducing forced outages and “better aligning operational practices with business outcomes.”

In Pakistan, GE has signed a contract to provide Digital Power Plant software to the 1292 MW Hubco power plant in Baluchistan (which uses non-GE equipment). Commissioned in 1997, the plant consists of four 323 MW generating units and is the largest independent coal-fired power plant in Pakistan.

The new software will “enable plant operators to analyse and monitor operations across all touchpoints in real time and help identify any maintenance issues ahead of time, leading to greater asset uptime and reduced unplanned downtime.”

The new Digital Power Plant for Steam follows the launch of the Digital Wind Farm, in May 2015, and the Digital Power Plant for Gas, in September 2015.

Bringing Chivasso out of mothballs

A striking example of the benefits of digital technology applied to a gas fired power plant is that of A2A’s Chivasso combined cycle facility in northern Italy. Pascal Schweitzer points out that plant was able to restart after three years in mothballs “not because market conditions had improved but because the plant had become more competitive. Digital was decisive in this project and the plant couldn’t have become competitive without it.”

GE’s Operations Optimization software suite was installed at the Chivasso power plant after it was reopened in November 2015, following GE hardware and software upgrades. The “new digital solutions have made the Chivasso power plant competitive again in the ancillary service market,” says GE, and A2A is planning to install GE’s software and hardware in its other power plants “to utilise big data analytics to improve fleet performance and make smarter operational decisions.”

“We were forced to mothball the facility three years ago because the plant could not respond quickly enough to changing grid demands,” says Valerio Camerano, CEO of A2A. “We can now react more quickly to market conditions while reducing operating costs and improving the plant’s environmental footprint.”

This is an example of how “digital solutions are breathing new life into power plants previously believed to be unsustainable”, says Paul McElhinney, president and CEO of GE’s Power Services business.

GE notes that its relationship with the Chivasso power plant dates back more than six decades, beginning with the installation of GE’s first steam turbine in Italy in 1952. To help bring about A2A’s restart of the Chivasso power plant in 2015, GE provided the two 9FA gas turbines with Dry Low NOx 2.6+ combustion hardware, plus advanced controls and software, as well as a new boiler system using Alsom technology (now owned oby GE).

These modifications enabled the Chivasso gas turbines to achieve a 65 MW minimum load, the best in GE’s 9FA fleet, and load ramping at up to 50 MW/minute (said by GE to be “two-and-a-half times the normal rate”).

Cost savings at Whitegate

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Whitegate combined cycle plant has reported potential savings of about 1.2 million euros in one year attributable to Asset Performance Management (APM), one of GE’s Digital Power Plant software applications.

Whitegate, in County Cork, was the first power plant in the world to deploy APM. “We needed an online condition-based monitoring solution that would help ensure Whitegate’s continuous operation with no unplanned downtime”, said Rory Griffin, operations engineer, Bord Gáis Energy (a Centrica subsidiary, which owns and operates the plant). “We selected GE’s Asset Performance Management solution because it helps us predict potential problems with our equipment and avoid costly unplanned outages.”

Using a network of both existing and supplementary sensors placed throughout the power plant the APM system provides Whitegate with enhanced, 24/7 digital diagnostics capabilities that automatically anticipate operational anomalies while still providing a single, consolidated view of plant performance. APM provides early warnings of failure mechanisms drawing from more than 300 analytics that detect when plant components are about to fail, allowing for more efficient outage management.

Whitegate did not have access to this type of data before the APM installation. Previously, plant operators relied on offline condition-based monitoring that required significant manual efforts to effectively detect failures.

In one situation, the APM solution helped Whitegate engineers to identify and correct an improperly installed component, correcting an overconsumption on supplementary firing gas usage. In all, the integrated APM solution has resulted in maintaining the availability of the covered equipment and 21 additional “catches” to be monetised, says GE, which provided Whitegate’s original generation equipment, and operates and maintains the station for Bord Gáis Energy under a 12-year service agreement. 

Alstom Working with a digitised power plant (photo: GE Digital Power Solutions)

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