New interests outweigh DCS at PowID keynote

The annual conference of the ISA Power Industry Div (PowID) has a small but loyal following of plant I&C and automation professionals and the audience normally is stacked with traditional distributed control system (DCS) types. But at this year’s keynote and industry issues session and panel discussion (June 7, 2015 in Kansas City) it seemed that industry leaders and audience wanted to talk about everything but traditional powerplants and control systems.

The two broad discernable trends percolating through were (1) “big data” solutions will be central to how the existing “big iron” power generating assets will be managed in the future, and (2) the movement towards distributed power and customer onsite solutions and systems appears inexorable.

Here are the highlights:

It’s about the agility, stupid. Scott Stallard, VP, Asset Management Services, Black & Veatch, said the industry is moving from command-and-control to a distributed and participatory network (figure). Paying for the agility necessary to keep the grid stable under these new conditions is difficult for stakeholders to grasp. Existing assets have to operate in ways not ever intended in their original design. Stallard believes all this is an opportunity, not a nightmare, because of “the convergence of advanced technology, advanced control, and multi-objective optimization.”

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New microgrid in town. B&V recently brought online its own microgrid serving the company’s innovation pavilion building at the headquarters complex in Overland Park, Kans. The microgrid includes a lithium-ion storage unit, two gas-fired microturbines, geothermal heat management, rooftop solar, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Predictive analytics. Pengju Kang, GE Global Research, Electrical Technologies & Systems, forecasted that by 2025, billions of data points from thousands of machines (gas turbines, wind turbines, etc) will be crunched by the company’s Predix servers to provide operational trends and analytics. The analytics will be “built into” the machine controllers at the plant.

Embedded advanced sensors. Robert Romanosky, deputy director, NETL/DOE Office of Coal and Power, discussed (1) new sensors for turbine blades and other components which will be embedded in the metal and powered by thermoelectric-device heat recovery, and (2) new “lick and stick” sensors powered by machine vibration energy. Both can communicate wirelessly to the larger control and information platform. They will help reduce the design margin required. “Sensors are cheap relative to physical power systems,” he said.

Intrigue with energy storage. The audience was intrigued by the control requirements around energy storage. Not only do the subsystems have to communicate with each other (battery unit, power conditioning system, grid interface) but the overall system has to operate according to the instantaneous needs of the grid and price signals from the marketplace.

Noise level with storage grows. During the meet-and-greet following the panel, a director-level representative of a small Midwest utility noted that company executives recently had been visited by representatives from Tesla, keenly interested in selling grid-scale storage to utilities. This followed a press report that Tesla had just signed an agreement with Southern Company to investigate storage; plus, the introduction of a bill in Congress the week before to impose a (very modest) storage mandate on utilities. Storage, it seems, is now part of every discussion about the future of the electricity industry.

The cavalry isn’t being trained. One topic which came up in the panel and after was that, with cybersecurity, disruptive changes to centralized command-and-control electricity paradigm, multi-directional relationships among utilities or utility-like entities and customers, cybersecurity, and ever-greater proliferation of wireless, personal devices, and software applications, etc, the role of control, automation, and communication grows exponentially. Yet, according to one professional, new engineers are not entering the workforce in near the numbers required. “Why aren’t there 500 people in this room, and half of them half my age?” one participant asked, rhetorically.

Overall, it was difficult to square the topics which drove the industry issues conversation with the rest of the program, focused on fossil, nuclear, and hydroelectric control systems; cybersecurity; and advanced technologies for power generation.

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