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GE pushes power sector towards the digital age

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World Coal,

There is a digital transformation occurring in the power sector, according to Scott Bolick, Head of Software Solutions and Product Development at GE Power, who gave the keynote presentation at this year’s ELECTRIC POWER conference. And it is bringing with it huge opportunities for the sector, Bolick told World Coal in an interview, pointing to a recent paper from GE and Accenture that estimated cost savings of up to US$1.3 trillion.

With its Predix platform, GE is at the forefront of that change to the digital industrial world. Predix is a cloud platform for the industrial internet. In the power sector it can be used to create digital clones of equipment – be it wind turbines or coal pulverizers – which can then be used to understand what the operational potential of that equipment really is.

And with its recent acquisition of NeuCo – also announced at ELECTRIC POWER – it is bringing that change to the coal-fired power sector.

Boston-based NeuCo began 15 yrs ago with a system that allowed power plants to reduce NOx emissions by optimising combustion, Peter Kirk, NeuCo’s President and CEO, explained to World Coal at the same interview. Since then it has added a number of other products, including ProcessOpt – which includes MaintenanceOpt and PerformanceOpt – and applies advanced process analytics to monitor for plant process issues most likely to cause performance issues.

Dealing with disruption

“When we look at where we’re going with Predix and our solutions, as an example, on our combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant, we just saw this natural fit [for NeuCo] to mirror what we’re going on the CCGT side,” Bolick explained. “And I think whether you’re CCGT or whether you’re coal, you’ve got to be more efficient and that efficiency helps you on emissions and efficiency is both the heat rate, it’s also how you operate the plant to include the start-ups. And then I think that when you look at CCGT and coal, increasingly it’s about what’s your flexibility to chase the market demand.”

The ability to operate flexibly is a growing issue for coal-fired plants coping with intermittent renewable feed-in and is a particular area that NeuCo’s technology can help boost plant performance, as Kirk explained, referencing a number of NeuCo clients in Texas wind country.

“It’s important to remember that coal plants – even though they are cycling or ramping up and down a lot more than they used to – they are still subject to the same environmental regulation and they’re still the most prone to be polluting assets,” Kirk said. “So we help our customers both with ramping and with maintaining emissions compliance during ramp”

NeuCo can also help with “more idiosyncratic things”, as Kirk put it. For example, back in Texas, at night when the wind is blowing, the coal units aren’t economical – but it would be even less economical to shut them down. “Because we manage the distribution and heat in the boiler process, we’re able to push some of that heat into the flue exit gas before it enters the SCR, so that they’re able to turn down an extra 20 – 30 MW overnight – and so therefore not be losing so much money.”

Indeed, the disruption that renewables are bringing to the current market mirrors the disruption that NOx regulation caused that allowed NeuCo to enter the market 15 yrs ago.

Going global

And now it’s part of GE, NeuCo is broadening its geographic horizons.

“We are seeing increased activity in Europe,” Kirk said. “And that’s following a pattern that I think I’ve seen in a slightly different regulatory context here in the US. 2016 has come; there is now a NOx standard. A lot of hardware was put in place and a lot of guarantees were met on that hardware to enable compliance with a pretty rigid emissions rule. But coal assets are big and noisy and they degrade rather quickly. And we will see that some of the projects that met their guarantee, over time are not ultimately able to meet the regulation. And that’s a real opportunity for us. We traditionally provide a 10 – 20% NOx reduction by optimising the boiler. We see other benefits as well in terms of fewer tube leaks; we see efficiency improvements. But when attention is focused on NOx, that 10 – 20% [reduction] is what will get you over the hump. That’s when we see a lot of interest in our product and I think that is something that will develop in Europe.”

“In another geography, in India, NOx regulations have just been announced,” Kirk continued/ “That’s traditionally been a really good driver for us. And I think with the reach and the commercial flexibility that GE affords us, that’s a market that we can start to address strongly and quickly and they have real drivers.”

“And finally the one that I’m waiting on is China. We’ve seen a couple of summers in a row where smog is a headline on the New York Times. They will have to do something about that. One of the primary drives of smog is NOx. And there is no cheaper way to make a reduction in NOx emissions than applying optimisation to coal-fired boilers. “

Indeed, according to Bolick, GE is already seeing demand for the solutions that NeuCo offer in these coal-heavy economies: “When we were talking to our customers in India and China, we saw nothing but demand for more software, for more digital solutions to help them optimise the plants on emissions, as well as efficiency. So we’re definitely looking forward to getting Peter on a plane and flying him out to India and China because we’ve got customers who are already waiting for this solution.”

Beyond efficiency and emissions control, NeuCo’s technology can also bring advantages in regions with a young and inexperienced workforce, such as South Africa and Southeast Asia, where installed coal-fired generation is expected to grow dramatically over the next few years.

“In economies like South Africa, southeast Asia, you have a very young workforce,” Kirk said. “In some cases, the plants are all new so you have operators who are learning how to operate these plants for the first time. The optimiser can really help new operators. We take certain things that are highly nuanced out of their hands and we actually see very rapid acceptance by younger operators because we are able to do that.”

It is, then, an exciting time for the power sector as disruption to the traditional power generators from renewables, from emissions regulations, drives innovation.

Scaling new efficiency heights

“We’ve reached the limit where purely human intervention and human action can drive more efficiency,” Bolick concluded. “And that’s really what we’re about in terms of the industrial internet and bringing the industrial internet into power. It’s to drive a new level of efficiency. It’s going to be a convergence of the IT/OT world that people have been talking about for years. And it’s going to happen much faster than anyone can anticipate because we’ve got lots of challenges but we know that if we really transform our industry digitally that we can meet these challenges.”

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