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Power & Utilities

Conventional No More: 6 technologies that are shaping the future of conventional power plants

Europe's energy landscape is undergoing profound shifts. Volatile prices and mounting concerns about climate change are prompting each country to reevaluate the role of fossil fuels, renewables and the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of traditional power plants. In our new blog series, "Power Plays in EMIA," our experts delve into some of the critical topics at hand — from hydrogen to smart grids — and the technologies that underpin them.

Has the demise of the conventional power plant been greatly exaggerated?

As the world grapples with an energy crisis, several governments are returning to coal, gas, and nuclear and looking for ways to extend the lifespan of their existing fleet or accelerate new projects.

Germany's decision to reactivate its Heyden 4 and Staudinger 5 coal plants, in particular, has made international headlines, while the UK is betting that the new Sizewell C nuclear power plant can help reduce its reliance on gas-fired electricity.

The comeback of conventional power plants may be more than just a blip. In a world where global demand for electricity is still rapidly growing - the IEA's 2022 World Energy Outlook Report assesses that it will grow by 25-30% by 2030 and by nearly 80% by 2050 - they are expected to play an essential role in offsetting the intermittency of wind and solar.

But this comeback will not put an end to the quest for cleaner, greener, and smarter power generation. And, in the past few years, a new breed of conventional power plants that leverage data and cutting-edge digital solutions are seeing the light of day.

Operators bet on IoT and EAM to make plants safer and more reliable

Using sensors and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in power plants is nothing new. A single piece of equipment, such as a gas turbine, can carry hundreds of sensors, and modern power plants can contain tens of thousands.

These sensors can accomplish a variety of tasks. By detecting any change in temperature, pressure, or seismic forces, among others, they play a key role in making plants safer. The data they produce also feeds machine-learning algorithms and predictive analytics that can help operators detect early signs of failures of critical components, optimize their maintenance and avoid costly shutdowns.

Unlocking these benefits typically requires overcoming two challenges. First, retrofitting existing plants, which sometimes have been in operation for several decades, can be difficult and necessitate a step-by-step, goal-oriented implementation and the support of an experienced partner. Secondly, these data streams must be gathered in a single interface and connected to other sources, such as operator rounds, equipment information, or operational data from the plant's Industrial Control Systems (ICS).

This is typically achieved with an Enterprise Asset Management platform (EAM) or a digital twin. These platforms can serve as "super-connectors" that integrate different data sources into a single source of truth – and the most advanced also incorporate AI models to facilitate decisions, such as asset replacement or maintenance.

Three data-driven approaches: Predictive maintenance, root-cause analysis, and carbon reduction.

Such platforms will also play a central role in addressing another emerging imperative: proving the plant’s bona fide sustainability and compliance credentials by the numbers.

For power plants that rely on fossil fuels, the main objective will be to demonstrate that they can reliably reduce their emissions. Observers are also keeping a close eye on groundbreaking initiatives like the Keadby 3 gas-fired power station, set to become the UK's first facility outfitted with carbon capture storage (CCS) technology. This innovative approach aims to store carbon dioxide in previously depleted gas and oil wells beneath the ocean. 

For nuclear plants, the focus will not be on carbon emissions but on their ability to function safely and comply with regulatory requirements. As several countries, including France and the UK, extend the lifespan of some of their older facilities, public opinion will pay increasing attention to maintenance and downtime. Last summer, simultaneous planned maintenance operations in 24 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors became a national news topic. 

And this is a domain where data-driven power plants can shine. Advanced analytics can enable predictive maintenance and ensure equipment can be fixed before it fails - an approach that can increase equipment uptime by 10 to 20% according to Deloitte, a global consultancy. In addition, cutting-edge platforms such as HxGN EAM can also perform root-cause analysis (RCA) and suggest corrective actions.

OT Cybersecurity as a license to operate

As data plays an increasing role in decision-making and automated processes, cybersecurity is bound to become a growing concern.

In the past year, energy and commodities infrastructure have become prime targets for malicious actors. According to S&P, 13 cybersecurity incidents shook the sector between January and October 2022. Electricity networks, constituting over a quarter of all incidents, proved to be particularly susceptible to cyber vulnerabilities.

In light of these threats, many companies are looking for solutions to bolster the cybersecurity of their Operational Technology (OT) and mitigate the risks posed by cyberattacks. And for critical infrastructure such as conventional power plants, a key area of focus is inventory management.

Power generators and transmission facilities have a mix of OT/IT systems and incorporate a myriad of hardware, software, and communication protocols. Having a comprehensive, well-maintained, automated and evergreen inventory of all OT and IT assets and endpoints is key to understanding the potential attack surfaces, identifying vulnerabilities, and developing effective incident response and recovery. In addition, having well-defined cyber policies and procedures in place is vital to safe operations that align with a chosen cybersecurity framework.

Hexagon provides a platform known as PAS Cyber Integrity, which provides a deep and detailed inventory spanning levels L0 to L3.5 for a wide range of devices, including Windows-based PC’s, Servers, computers, network devices such as switches, firewalls, and routers, and Industrial Control Systems – DCS, SIS historians, turbine controls and vibration monitoring, SCADA, PLC’s etc.

The platform relies on the National Institute of Standards and Technology's National Vulnerability Database (NIST-NVD) to stay informed about vulnerabilities. Its integrated Vulnerability Management module helps companies gain immediate insight into their risk exposure, pinpointing any known weaknesses. It also lets them cross-reference their inventories with the vulnerability database to determine the number of vulnerabilities in their operations and the plants and equipment at risk.

Tackling cyber risks, along with operational and environmental ones, will be of paramount importance for nuclear, gas-fired, renewables and combined heat and power plants in the years ahead. Their ability to achieve tangible outcomes in safety, security, and sustainability will not only have a considerable impact on the financial results of their operators but also on public perception and energy policies in the next decade. 

Ready to learn more? Discover What's New in OT/ICS Cybersecurity.

About the Author

Derek Horn currently serves as Sales Director for Hexagon Asset Lifecycle Division based in Scotland (Perth) and is responsible for Hexagon's OT cybersecurity business for Europe and South Africa Prior to joining Hexagon, Derek worked all his career within the industrial process industries varying from Dynamic Positioning of Vessels and Oil rigs, commissioning DCS on oil platforms, manager of subsea operations for both top-side and sub-surface, and spent many years working in the field of Advanced Process Control/Muti-variable Control within the multiple industrial sectors ranging from Polymers, Bioethanol, Mining and Mineral, Cement Industries and Consumer Packaged Goods (detergent, milk and whey powders) focused on the real-time optimization of Evaporators and Spray Dryers. In the last six years, Derek has worked extensively in ICS/OT cybersecurity for Hexagon across a variety of industries, including Upstream, Downstream, Power Generation and Transmission He studied Electrical Engineering in Aberdeen, coupled with an MSc from Lancaster University in England.

Profile Photo of Derek Horn