No matter what the prospects for renewable energies might be, with more than 500 years of reserves in the U.S. alone, coal will be here to stay for a good long time. Coal plants currently generate more than 40 percent of the world’s electricity and will remain the second-largest energy source worldwide until at least 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Coal is set to provide 20 percent of electricity for the next 20 years in the U.S., and will likely remain a primary fuel source for even longer in China and India, where it fuels more than 70 percent of electricity generation today.
With all this in mind, GE Power is pooling its expertise in power plant operation, equipment management and digital insights to maximize plant efficiency and availability, showcasing these capabilities at a new Steam Plant Services Innovation Center in King George, Va.
“A lot of customers need to have a diversified portfolio of power generating assets. We firmly believe coal will have a place in the world,” said Terry Schoenborn, general manager of operations and maintenance for GE’s Power Services. “It’s going to be here, and we’re out to optimize it.”
GE often points to its position as one of the world’s largest OEMs as an ideal showcase for its expertise in managing that equipment. The same is true in power plants—GE operates more than 30 power plants around the world, managing 15 GW of electricity-generating capacity. This gives the company a great place to showcase its Digital Power Plant for Steam software.
GE Power’s latest announcement revolves around converting its 242 MW coal-fired Birchwood Power facility into an innovation center to showcase GE technologies and their ability to increase the efficiency and flexibility of coal-fired steam power plants, while also reducing emissions. The showcase will combine GE’s full suite of Digital Power Plant for Steam software with expert operations, and align with GE’s global Powering Efficiency Center of Excellence (CoE) initiative. The CoE provides customers with total plant solutions to upgrade their existing generation equipment.
GE Power Services owns 50 percent of the Birchwood power facility, but just took over the operations and maintenance (O&M) services contract there at the beginning of this month. “We have about 60 people at the plant that work for us today,” Schoenborn noted. “With this announcement, it presents a very unique and great opportunity to bring our digital solutions to the plant. It really was a perfect fit from a GE perspective.”
As part of its suite of services, GE is installing its advanced digital solutions, which will equip plant O&M technicians at the site with new opportunities for process and productivity improvements by leveraging machine and sensor data, analytics and boiler optimization technologies across the entire plant. By making improvements from the fuel supply, within the boiler, and across the balance of plant, there is potential to incrementally impact efficiency, flexibility and availability, while reducing emissions, outage and maintenance costs.
The installation will not only showcase GE Power’s digital capabilities, but also its ability to run power plants, Schoenborn said. “We have the expertise of people who know how it works. This is a great combination of a lot of our company initiatives.”
Introduced in 2016, GE Power’s Digital Power Plant for Steam software addresses machine and fleet performance. Asset performance management (APM) software continuously monitors steam plant equipment health, enabling operations teams to make decisions that enhance plant performance. Benefits include reducing unplanned downtime up to 5 percent, reducing false positive outage alerts up to 75 percent, and reducing operations and maintenance costs by up to 25 percent.
A key part of the Digital Power Plant for Steam platform came from NeuCo, which GE Power acquired just over a year ago. The machine learning and data analytics startup used software and artificial intelligence to improve the efficiency of coal-fired power plants.
“With closed-loop optimization, we’re taking 600 pieces of data from the plant all the time in real time,” explained Peter Kirk, former CEO of NeuCo and now executive, business operations, for GE Power Digital Solutions. “We leverage artificial intelligence to take advantage of the control operations that are already built into the plant.”
Now there’s new data to be leveraged through GE’s Predix platform for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Kirk added. “We’ve spent the last year finding ways to leverage what we do and leverage the cloud through Predix,” he said. “That’s what’s going to be on display at Birchwood.”
The Birchwood installation will also include Operations Optimization software. With boiler optimization software, it manages complex boiler interactions to improve boiler operations performance and consistency. Benefits include improvements in heat rates, reduced tube failures and slagging, and reduced NOx and CO2 emissions. For every point of efficiency gained using digital solutions, CO2 emissions are lowered by 2 percentage points. For a 1 GW plant, this improvement in efficiency can reduce fuel consumption by 67,000 tons of coal per year with the same output.
GE’s Powering Efficiency CoE initiative aims to help customers with coal-fired power plants optimize their operations, improve plant efficiency and reduce emissions with the combination of advanced hardware and digital offerings. The CoE aligns with GE’s recent Ecomagination study that found CO2 emissions from the world’s steam fleet can be reduced by 11 percent when existing hardware and software solutions are fully applied.
It’s the combination of all different kinds of GE technologies and expertise—from plant operations and a deep understanding of coal to digital and cloud technologies—that the Birchwood plant aims to show off. As a whole, GE will look at where it can get the maximum number of improvements, Kirk said. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from—whether operator training, analytics in the cloud, physical assets, or whatever. It’s the whole thing in one place.”
“When we operate a plant, now we have this whole backroom of engineers at our disposal to really optimize the operation of the plant,” Schoenborn added. “We have an internal knowledge of what’s really going on with the equipment. That knowledge harnessed together is really, really powerful. And then there’s the digital world, marrying up the people and expertise across the globe. It really adds value to customers.”
GE is in the process of installing the suite of products at Birchwood, and should be done around the August timeframe, Schoenborn said. Then as the system gets fully operational, they will begin to bring customers through for demonstrations in coal capabilities.
Evolution to energy sources with lower carbon emissions is likely to take another generation or more, according to Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer for GE Power. “In the interim, the Innovation Center at Birchwood will enable us to demonstrate how to make coal a dramatically more efficient, flexible and lower-emission fuel source through the use of advanced engineering, software and analytics,” he said.