Flexible Generation for a Smart Grid World


A man works atop a wind turbine at the Delaware Mountain Wind Farm in Culberson County, Texas. Zero-carbon sources amplify the need for effective enterprisewide integration.

By Ray King, Microsoft, and Laurent Demortier, ALSTOM

A large nuclear power plant operates 24/7 along with more traditional fossil-fired facilities. As wind power comes online, there’s excess generation, so some of the baseload generation isn’t needed. However, baseload power generation facilities like that nuclear power plant cannot turn off and on with the wind. Many units take at least six to 24 hours to power down or up. The result is negative pricing–often in penalties of up to $40 per megawatt per instance–generators are forced to absorb.

One of the most significant challenges utilities worldwide face is integrating renewable energy sources into the generation mix and optimizing the supply side. A recent Microsoft survey reveals that 42 percent of the responding utilities are incorporating distributed generation sources such as wind and solar, and another 25 percent will begin to incorporate these sources in the next one to three years.


Challenges to Adding in Nonbaseload Generation


The challenge of distributing renewables is complex and will continue to grow. While renewables promise many benefits to help fulfill the growing energy demand in a more eco-friendly fashion, they also require utilities to be more flexible to store, react and respond to variable supply.

One solution is today’s sophisticated control technology that helps integrate generation into the smart grid. New plant and machine automation technologies will provide the flexibility utilities need to better manage the generation mix across the entire energy value chain.

By integrating distributed generation and storage environments with the smart grid, utilities will achieve real-time optimization on the supply side–something impossible today. With this level of integration, technology can automatically adjust the baseload. For example, in the new energy ecosystem, the generation mix will be balanced at correct intervals if 100 GW of power is removed from the baseload at 15-minute intervals. Today this balancing only occurs once each day.


Renewable Integration Drives End-to-End Flexibility


Better information gives utilities the flexibility to make decisions that can offset or prevent renewables from causing negative pricing. Because plant information goes down to the turbine and boiler levels, updates in 15-minute intervals instead of once per day allows plant workers to make wiser decisions and could impact pricing models.

As a first step to achieving this flexibility, utilities should evaluate how they manage multiple plants. Today, most plant managers focus on one plant. Because each plant is different, utilities have disparate assets with varying processes. Although they run independently, plants share the goal of maximizing generation in an optimal manner.

A new way to manage power plants is interconnecting at the plant level so utilities can run their plants as a fleet across the generation value chain. On the transmission and distribution side, it’s hard to imagine managing each truck or pole separately instead of managing the entire fleet.

By running plants as a fleet, utilities create a generation ecosystem, making it possible to handle a more complex infrastructure. This model integrates operational processes, systems, software, human interaction and assets across the entire ecosystem. Technology can help utilities manage a balanced generation portfolio to use maximum supply of renewables with existing generation resources. Leaders will also have the information needed to make difficult decisions to potentially avoid negative pricing while also keeping the grid balanced and the lights on.

By running plants as a fleet, they’ll have the flexibility to more easily gather carbon dioxide data needed for new emissions reports, get the wind power from the prairies to the cities and better manage energy supply overall–all without replacing the entire technology infrastructure.

Eskom is a new baseload generation facility construction example. It is using modern technology to manage the twin giant coal-fired power plants Medupi and Kusile being constructed in South Africa. Its plant management technology will provide the necessary software and control layers modern power plants need to fully optimize, including integrated operation, management, maintenance, automation and safety functions. The technology will also give these two large coal plants the flexibility and efficiency needed to respond to intermittent demand–especially in integrating with renewables.

As these two new plants come online, Eskom will have the ability to add renewables and balance with baseload to efficiently manage one plant. It also will have the capability to manage as a fleet the second and additional plants. As the result, Eskom will integrate its capacity into a dynamic balancing equation to meet South Africa’s power needs in a more efficient and eco-friendly manner.


Translating Data Deluge into Real-time Energy Management


Once the interconnection is achieved, the real art is in making the massive amounts of renewables and smart technology data intelligent. Utility employees can access and use intelligent information, which is stored in a secure cloud, to collaborate and make more informed decisions.

For example, the British government’s goal is to install more than 6,000 wind turbines across British waters to fulfill a third of Britain’s electricity needs by 2020. This is a huge leap for a country that generated only 1.3 percent of its energy from renewables in 2005. In this scenario, extracting and storing data and translating it into usable information to help utilities optimize performance and make better decisions will be a daunting task.

Technology today aggregates, analyzes and acts on data from plants, fleets and the entire ecosystem in two ways. One is in real time, which gives the right people access to the right information for fast action. The other is by regrouping data from equipment and plants, fleets of plants and buildings into a hierarchical data management system. As a result of integration, information is presented to users based on their needs, not by architecture.

By gathering data and monitoring each asset, plant managers understand–and even predict–asset behavior based on where each asset is in the life cycle. If an asset vibrates, they can analyze its age, maintenance and market pricing to make an informed maintenance decision and avoid unneeded replacement or costly downtime.

At the fleet level, utilities will have the ability to gather data and manage a full portfolio of assets. The result is optimized dispatching and coordinated storage from baseload to renewables. By interconnecting each element and overseeing them together, utilities can manage the complexity more effectively and make the right decisions to maximize revenues and profits.

To enhance decision quality and speed even more, utilities can add new automation software so workers can complete enterprise searches and use enhanced business intelligence and unified communications. For example, utility workers can collaborate with vendors, partners and customers, and technicians have access to asset histories and the ability to search the enterprise for information to help solve problems. The best available resources are an instant message away.

While some may be intimidated by the uncertain and evolving nature of distributed power generation, integrating across generation makes supply-side optimization possible. With connectivity, utilities can create new business models and markets that can lead to undiscovered revenue sources. The industry is beginning a journey full of new regulations, challenges and opportunities. Utilities joining this journey will have the flexibility to use renewable resources, lower CO2 and make better decisions to maximize profits while keeping the lights on for the next decade and beyond.

As senior vice president, ALSTOM Power sector and leader of the Energy Management Business, Laurent Demortier has played a significant role in helping utilities around the globe use grid automation technologies to cope with the rapid deployment of the wholesale electrical markets.

Ray King drives industry solution strategy as solutions director of Microsoft’s energy industry team. His primary responsibility is guiding the industry to thrive in today’s market-driven environment. King brings more than 25 years of business and technology experience in the energy space and holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.


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