Sustainable Operational Excellence – Key to Successful Coal Plant Retirements

Electricity is the largest energy consumer with 20% share, and this is expected to be 50% in 2050 as per EIA. Increasing penetration of electric amenities and equipment/vehicles is expected to contribute to this increasing share.  The scenario necessitates increasing adoption of clean energy sources and technologies to ensure limited environmental impact.  Several global economies have pledged commitments with respect to energy transition and coal plant retirements and chalked out clean energy plan. In spite of the pledges and the accelerated clean energy adoption, the energy continuity and efficiency are dependent on the balance between coal plant retirement and clean energy integration. Added to this several developing economies are still majorly dependent on Fossil based power generation.

As the Global economies continue to formulate and debate strategies focused on climate change and sustainability, the key to seamless execution is by ensuring energy continuity during the change. Coal Power plant have been at the forefront of transition and transformation in the pledge for sustainability. In a 2 part blog, we will discuss the big transition, the key challenges and the need for optimization levers in ensuring energy continuity while achieving the Coal transition.

The scenario is very similar to the EV adoption trend in US. The actual Electric Vehicle (EV) sales as a percentage of the total sale is still under 5 %. The key reason being the penetration of charging infrastructure. As EV sales are dependent on the charging infrastructure penetration, Ultimate end of coal may still be few decades away until we achieve that seamless balance powered by technology convergence and Future proof digital utility operations.

The Big Transition and the need to ensure continuity during change

The drive to enhance renewable generation and the increasing renewable mix is a positive sign towards the sustainable energy  transition but there Is more than what meets the eye.

The Key challenges in achieving energy transition include:

  • Energy mix and Grid stability – transformation in the generation sector is not matching the Pace of utility transformations. The pace of renewable capacity addition and integration does not match  the coal retirals and additional load demand
  • Transients due to renewables – With majority of the grid envisioned to be powered by renewables (Solar, Wind), both of these would be influenced by climatic transients leading to fluctuations in the generation. There is a need to manage these transients from other stable sources or backup power (storage)
  • Conundrum of no new Capex and Sustaining output from existing coal plants while meeting emission norms
  • Integrating generation sources and meeting sustainability targets through carbon credits
  • Non structured EV penetration and load fluctuation

These challenges clearly indicate that there would be significant banking on coal plants to continue to operate at least till 2050. To keep these plants operational and also ensure minimum environmental damages several utilities have embarked on a strategic plan that involves adoption of below listed approach:

  • Transition to Natural Gas
  • Enhanced Asset Reliability and Management to ensure Financial sustainability
  • Virtual Power Plant Pilots
  • Futuristic storage technologies
  • Renewable generation integration
  • Digital and Collaborative Centralized Project and Resource Management Platform
  • Carbon capture and storage and
  • Most importantly a remote operations center connecting and monitoring the different approaches and implementation stages

As the utilities progress in implementing alternate approaches, the upkeep and efficiency of the on line coal plants will be critical.  The legacy nature of several Coal generation plants and possibly obsolete Control systems, higher fuel and maintenance, reduced reliability and resilience and the unstable generation impacting the grid are some of the key factors and priorities demanding specialist technology intervention.

Power plant operators can  target the following levers for ensuring Coal Plant continuity and sustainability until the natural retirement:

  • People – Workforce Automation, AR/VR based skills development
  • Digital Twins based Operations  for enhancing sustainability and Fuel optimization
  • Closed Loop- Predictable Load need and Realtime Generation Management
  • Integrated Visibility of operations and Predictive Maintenance planning
  • Integrated and Optimized Operational Technology Services

By adopting all or some of the levers basis the current maturity and the requirements of the plant, the Coal power plant operators can ensure limited impact and sustainable margin during this much needed transition.

In part2 of the blog we will elaborate on each of the optimization levers and the key differentiation that it can offer.


Author Details

Arunkumar Janarthanan

Arun is an Industry consultant and thought leader, with specialization in automation and IIOT, He has significant cross-industry experience. The cross-industry experience enabled him create digital transformation approaches that considered converging industry layers as well as the disruptions .

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