2017: Industrial IoT to Accelerate a Bright Future for Renewables

Renewables are in the midst of a transition. Emissions reduction guidelines combined with a growing energy demand in emerging economies are pushing the buildout of massive wind farm fleets and solar panel installations worldwide. Amidst this buildout, however, advances in digital technology are coming to the forefront as the energy industry faces a reality: the use of fossil fuels will continue to grow alongside renewables.

From new software platforms to machine learning applications, digital technologies are influencing the industry’s metamorphosis in two key ways: digital tools will help the industry get more out of wind and solar, and software will help new and existing fossil fuel plants become more efficient.

Renewables + Digital

In 2017, more utility-scale wind and solar will reach grid parity, and in many regions these power generation sources will offer lower-priced options to traditional options such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. Also this year, Google will reach 100 percent renewable energy for the company’s data centers and offices. Tesla Motors has become Tesla Inc. to better represent a company that now owns a solar business, and China is undergoing the world’s biggest wind turbine installation effort, at one point estimating a wind turbine being built every two hours.

This renewables-heavy industry benefits greatly from the use of digital technologies. Applying analytics to the streams of data collected from wind turbines and building applications that can predict and, increasingly, prescribe and order maintenance means significantly improved efficiency.

Greater efficiency can sound mundane, but consider this: improving the maintenance and efficiency of these machines can increase wind farm output by 20 percent. That is 20 percent more, clean energy delivered into the Electricity Value Network (EVN). Why not put a financial number to that, as well: digital for the global install base of wind farms holds $50 billion in value.

Legacy + Digital

Why go beyond that? Well, as we all know, the wind doesn’t always start blowing when energy demand is reaching its peak, and when residents are coming home at the end of a long workday and switching on the lights and television, the sun is setting.

Here comes the reality: coal is forecast to remain the world’s second largest energy source through 2030. In fact, more than 75 percent of the global energy supply depends on non-renewable sources. Legacy fuel sources are needed in order to meet demand when renewable sources are unable to respond. Applying digital technology to legacy fuel sources, however, relieves some of the impact.

Improving reliability and efficiency can improve production output of an existing gas power plant by 2 percent. The impact of that improvement can be hard to really grasp until you consider the fact that digital technology improving efficiency of gas plants by 1.5 percent worldwide would drop the annual global CO2 emissions from 11,266 million metric tonnes (Mt) to 10,757 Mt. That’s a reduction of 4.2 percent per year, or the equivalent of taking 250 million cars off the road every year.

Better Together

An approach to digital that considers the realities of both renewables and legacy generation sources is where we see the big picture benefit.

India is a great example of what this new balance looks like. India’s growing economy will mean growing energy demand in the region. The country is currently on track to become the largest solar market this year; however, global projections also indicate that coal use in India will surpass both China and the United States in the coming decades.

The success of this type of mixed generation environment depends on the ability of gas and steam plants to ramp quickly to respond to periods of high demand when fluctuating renewable sources are unable to provide the necessary power. Conversely, gas and steam plants will need to quickly scale back when weather conditions indicate periods of high wind and sun and grid overload becomes a concern.

Digital applications that can optimize a legacy plant’s response to changing market demands — including an influx or drop of wind or solar power — will ensure both a symbiotic relationship with renewable fleets and profitable operations across the board. Take A2A’s Chivasso plant in Italy, for instance. Once mothballed due to the plant’s inability to operate profitability and within the country’s emissions standards, the plant has since reopened after optimizing operations to better respond to quick market changes. The plant can now ramp at 2.5 times the normal rate to respond to energy demand.

Imagine the impact of improving legacy fleets by that multitude worldwide — a balanced grid and prioritization of the right generation at the right time means better use of renewables to meet emissions goals while keeping the realities of the EVN in mind.

Looking forward

With renewables continuing to grow as a viable source of energy, it’s not enough to make improvements in engineering and build more wind farms. Reports continue to show the gradual impact that cleaner, alternative energy sources have on the population such as falling utility costs, reduced atmospheric emissions from less coal consumption and the scaling down of destructive resource mining.

The Industrial IoT and the digital technologies developed to address these opportunities and challenges will continue to move their way across the EVN, providing actionable insights, real-time analytics and optimized processes until renewable energy is successfully scaled to work compatibly with legacy sources and the existing grid infrastructure.

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Ganesh Bell is the Chief Digital Officer of GE Power, GE’s largest industrial business, with more than $28 billion in revenue in 2015, and approximately 38,000 employees serving customers in more than 125 countries. GE Power’s technology generates approximately one third of all the world’s electricity. Ganesh is also General Manager of GE Power Digital Solutions, GE’s largest and fastest growing software business. His team is applying data science and software to monitoring, predicting and ultimately optimizing electricity generation, transmission, distribution and consumption. Named a top 20 influential Chief Digital Officer by CxOTalk, Ganesh joined GE in 2014 from ServiceSource, where he was EVP, GM & Chief Products Officer. He was previously VP of Product Strategy & Management at SAP, led platform strategy at PeopleSoft, and was Chief Software Architect at J.D. Edwards.

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