Digitalizing the Power Sector


While the “three Ds” of energy—decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization—are all driving the global energy transition, only digitalization has truly permeated every aspect of the power sector.

And digitalization, which involves the convergence and adoption of machine learning, big data, cloud technology, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies, is quickly becoming a mainstream movement. While many of these technologies and terminologies didn’t even exist a decade ago, they are now standard across industry, ever-present in everyday vernacular.

Recent years have seen both innovative startups and established technology giants entering the power and utility sector, blurring the market’s boundaries to include telecom, financial technology, and retail industries.

In many cases, companies in these sectors have helped enable the digitalization of the energy sector and the rise of “prosumers”—novice consumers who buy professional-quality equipment. Not so long ago, the idea of sitting at home and asking a machine to adjust the heating, battery storage, or solar panels was simply a science fiction fantasy, a far-off dream of a high-tech future. Now, however, it’s a reality.

Artificial Intelligence for an Optimized Power Industry

In addition to delivering unique benefits for consumers, digitalization offers huge opportunities to the power industry as a whole.

Power generators and the solution companies that work with them are frequently uncovering and creating new opportunities. Spokespersons for many of these companies will discuss digitalization’s role in transforming power plants at POWER-GEN International, held in Orlando, Florida, from Dec. 4-6. They will provide valuable insight about how companies can now unlock significant savings and increase efficiency by making use of the latest cutting-edge technologies to optimize equipment. Recognized industry leaders will present their thoughts on digitally transforming a power generation business into a 21st-century trailblazer.

In a recent interview with Power Engineering International, GE Power Chief Digital Officer Steve Martin talked about the digital transformation.

“Power plants are like robots without brains. Artificial intelligence (AI) will soon assist in the spread of technology through power generation facilities, making physical processes more predictable and, in some cases, automated,” Martin said.

By the end of 2018, he predicted, “AI will rapidly automate basic maintenance of industrial processes, from real-time fuel optimization … to wind power forecasting.”

Perhaps the most pivotal element in the future of AI is the intersection of human contribution and automated technology input. Going forward, Martin said he expects “a blended human/AI approach to digitalizing operations that frees up human capital to focus on high-priority issues.”

With the skills gap continuing to grow, Martin stressed the importance of planning ahead: “Electricity has a mature workforce with 25 percent of industry workers reaching retirement age within five years, so power producers and utilities will need to invest substantially in creating a culture where operators are comfortable working in AI-enabled environments.”

Digitalization will also play a major role in the renewable energy sector going forward. In the “Business Strategy: The State of Digital Transformation in North America Power in 2016” research report, John Villali, an analyst at research firm IDC, stated that power producers will increasingly be looking to digital technologies to meet today’s shifting needs.

“New requirements are being created because of the increased amount of intermittent wind and solar capacity being added to the grid,” Villali said, “which requires traditional fossil fuel generation to have quicker ramp-up and ramp-down times as well as additional spinning reserves. These capabilities are needed for generating supply to meet electric demand as market conditions constantly change.”

Humans and Technology Collaborating and Coexisting

Other thought leaders in the power industry also are emphasizing the importance of human labor in today’s increasing digitalized world. Susan Petersen Sturm, digital lead of the Power Generation & Water area of ABB’s Industrial Automation department, told Power Engineering International that digitalization is really “all about people, process, and technology.”

“In digitalization,” she explained, “we talk a lot about technology, but not about people and processes. Without changing their business process to get the results that digital solutions offer, companies will have great technology but little else.”

Most importantly, Sturm noted, “Digitalization should not make people feel alienated or excluded from the industry’s digital future.” In other words, digitalization initiatives should maintain a balance between people and technology, rather than one replacing the other.

Juliet Shavit, president and CEO of Smartmark Communications, is also a firm believer in focusing on the human element in digitalization. Recognized for her ability to deftly bridge the communication gap between engineers, technology experts, marketing departments, and consumers, Shavit’s experience in multiple sides of the industry grants her unique insight into the future of the field.

In regard to digitalization, she told Power Engineering International, “There is a misunderstanding that smart technology by itself can do anything. It is the interaction between the technology and the people that creates the solution.

“You could have the smartest technology in the world,” she explained, “but unless customers are engaging with [that technology] and reducing their energy use and playing a proactive role in the energy transformation, then really we don’t have a sustainable value. And you are not going to realize the investments into the technology.”

Exploring New Technology at POWER-GEN International

As digitalization continues to spread rapidly across the power sector, industry leaders must learn how to adapt their own technology, internal processes, and business practices to the digital age. And those leaders who have already started implementing such updates must stay ahead of the digital transformation and position themselves for success by keeping abreast of upcoming advancements and learning how to harness the power of new technology.

POWER-GEN International covers digitalization and how it’s transforming power generation in its in-depth educational content. In the Digital Solutions & Cybersecurity track, experts will discuss the technologies behind this digital revolution and the efforts to protect the world’s power plants from the growing number of cyberattacks. Sessions in this track include:
- Approaches to the Cybersecurity
- Digital Technologies for Today
- Practical Applications of Digital Twins

Now in its 30th year, the tradeshow—the world’s largest power generation event—will showcase a wide range of products, services, and solutions for companies in the power generation sector.