32 (127) 2017
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Energy & Environment

Automating the energy sector in the UK

by Tom Dove, sales manager, Elsta Ltd
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The UK is one of the fast-growing leaders in the renewable energy sector.

Government data, released in the quarterly publication Energy Trends, reveals that renewable electricity’s share of generation has reached a record 29.8% of the mix in Q2 2017, while output from coal fell 50% to a record low of 2.1%. For comparison, in 2005 renewables were responsible for only 4% of the total power generation.

New data from the UK Government’s Energy and Climate Change Public Attitudes Tracker shows that public support for renewable energy technologies remains high and continues to grow with 82% of respondents expressing support (up from 77% in the most previous survey).

The renewable energy industry is getting a more and more important part of the British economy as it employs close to 126,000 people. This is a number that has the potential for further growth. Total investment during 2014-2020 in the British renewable electricity sector is expected to reach a total of £40.8 bn. Four technologies dominate investments: offshore (29%) and onshore wind (19%), small-scale solar (23%), and mixed waste-to-energy and biomass (16%).

Waste-to-energy and biomass sector

Only for the latter, PwC forecast investments worth £6.5 billion between 2014-2020. Energy-to-waste and the biomass power sectors in the UK employs at least 14,000 employees. The industry has an annual turnover of £2.75 billion.

Elsta observes the dynamic development of this sector in the UK, actively participating in the construction and modernisation of 17 energy-to-waste and biomass power plants between 2012 and this year. Thanks to these investments, 480MW of base-load renewable energy will be generated directly to the grid – the equivalent of 624 wind turbines – enough to continuously power 650,000 houses.

Elsta has been providing high-efficiency electrical equipment and instrumentation within comprehensive engineering and installation (E&I) projects but also innovative approach to the overall investment: it covers operations and maintenance (O&M) processes and 24/7 service support, including warranty and post-warranty services, with the help of an innovative enterprise asset management (EAM)/computerised maintenance management system (CMMS)-class IT.

“Investors and operators of renewable energy power plants are increasingly interested in modern solutions that could support the full cycle of investment, especially in automation systems for maintenance and service processes” said Przemysław Hajto, chief operating officer of Elsta Ltd. “The digital industrial revolution opens up many possibilities inaccessible until today, such as an access to all information on inspections and inventory – historical and real time – at hand, on a single click.”

O&M services automation

The use of new IT technologies leads to reducing breakdown causes and optimising service and inspection processes. Imagine that O&M officers are all equipped with tablets with immediate access to the documentation, and all the equipment on plant is tagged with QR codes allowing for their identification – scanning the code with a tablet, directs them to all data regarding the equipment parameters and documentation. O&M staff can localise any failures with the system-mapping feature. They perform necessary repairs with the use of the tablet ordering spare and wear parts or calling an external services through the system. Inspection results are uploaded automatically back to the central system and real time information is available on a click. What a convenient and time saving idea!

The central system allows for creating specific inspection plans and schedules with a tailored check list for O&M staff to follow. It makes managing resources and data ever so efficient.

The power industry has to invest in modern IT solutions because of the ageing workforce and retirement of skilled technical workers making automation of O&M services increasingly important. That gap of qualified employees will be one of the most important challenges that energy and utilities’ service providers will have to face. That is one reason why implementing technologies that optimise manpower and resources is so relevant.

These new technologies are advancing rapidly and will certainly play a major role in power plants’ O&M systems. However, opinions differ as to how fast they will come to market. One of the factors determining their implementation speed is how easy-to-use and cost-reducing they are.

Nonetheless, one thing remains certain: the automation of services in the UK's power sector is as inevitable as the departure from coal.

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