In the era of endless data, insights are a valuable thing.
Predicting potential problems and addressing them before they become an issue can save time and resources. In many cases, it’s more cost effective to proactively maintain something than to reactively repair it.
So it is with Energy Supply’s ongoing and expanding Monitoring and Diagnostic (M&D) initiative. The M&D Center is based in Denver, with a satellite Nuclear operation in Minnesota. Now in its fifth year of operation, the initiative has proven its worth and grown to include the bulk of the company’s fossil plants, along with company-owned wind and nuclear facilities.
The center’s beginnings came in 2014 with a pilot program that covered seven plants, which remotely monitored complex mechanical and electrical processes, said Phil Yakimow, manager of Performance Monitoring. They included the company’s six largest coal-fired generating facilities (Tolk, King, Sherco, Pawnee, Comanche and Harrington) and one combined cycle facility (Rocky Mountain).
Kent Larson, executive vice president and group president of Operations, had come across the technology and realized its potential for Xcel Energy. The pilot soon answered the question of whether the effort made sense and whether it should be handled in-house. The answer to both was “yes.”
The pilot quickly proved that such an operation could provide the ability to improve plant reliability, optimize performance and minimize repair costs – all key goals for Energy Supply and its operations.
The effort begins with a fleet-wide, data-management system that records and stores plant data from all of participating sites in one location. OSI-PI is the system used to process all of this data, and Business Systems’ “PI Team” ensures its reliable operation.
“The plants were data islands before the PI System existed, and you had to be at a plant to see what was going on,” Yakimow said. “Now the PI system gives us a uniform and consistent data platform for whatever type of analysis we need.
“It can be used by Engineering, Performance, Finance, Planning and any number of subject-matter experts, you name it,” he added. “M&D and the sites tap into this data stream with the predictive software that the initiative is founded on.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the center is not a 24/7 operation. The results produced are generally so predictive that employees can identify problems far ahead of time. For example, an early vibration issue may not be a problem, but given early warning, a plant can perform testing, increase monitoring or plan for maintenance with additional warning.
“It gives the plants and Energy Supply as a whole the chance to investigate and react as required,” Yakimow said. “We’re able to have much better visibility into how our plants are operating and how the equipment is running. The center moves our window to act out to a much longer timeframe.”
The guts of the center’s operations is General Electric’s SmartSignal software product. The program takes tens of thousands of raw data points every 10 minutes and sifts through them find anomalies.
“It’s like sifting through tons and tons of ore to find a few gold nuggets,” Yakimow said. “Anything that floats up as a potential concern, after local weather conditions and other normal factors are considered, could be a problem and is noted to the appropriate plant personnel.”
Of course, the success of this initiative is due in large part to the many plant managers, engineers and union personnel who take advisory information provided by the M&D Center and act upon it in an expeditious manner, he said.
Another equally important factor is the good working relationships that M&D staff has with the participating plants. M&D personnel provide regular reports about operating trends and predictive information to plant engineering, operations and maintenance teams, who use the insights in conjunction with conventional practices to benefit operations.
“When any system is outside a normal historical pattern, we get an advisory, and it’s our job to decide whether we are in a new state of operation that the model needs to learn or one that needs plant attention,” said Jonathan Hicks, principal engineer. “We help turn big data into really useful data. We’re continually creating ongoing operating profiles for the critical systems at each plant and have expanded our coverage beyond our original scope.”
If something significant does come up that can have an immediate impact on a generating unit, M&D Center employees move quickly.
“They’ll call us on the phone to let us know, and we’ll look at it immediately,” said Ruben Roman, maintenance manager at Comanche Generating Station. “And then we’ll follow up with either an engineer or subject matter expert, and go out and take a look at the piece of equipment to see if there is anything out of the ordinary going on. They give us the opportunity for an early warning that is going to minimize downtime, repairs and everything that goes with it.”
There are many tangible benefits from the operation, Yakimow said, including improved plant availability and reliability by avoiding critical equipment failures; reduced costs; mitigation of safety events; better environmental compliance; and a reduction of human performance issues.
Going forward, the center will continue to add company-owned wind resources to its workload. By 2021, Xcel Energy will own and operate about 4,400 megawatts of wind energy. This translates to roughly 2,200 wind turbines that will be monitored by the M&D Center. Other company groups, such as Gas Operations, are also now looking at ways the center could help their operations.
Overall the potential savings from avoided costs now stands at more than $21 million for the center’s five years of operations. But the main point is to help the plants and help the fleet maintain reliability, Yakimow said.
“We’ve identified more than 700 issues, which could have led to unit outages or de-rates and equipment failures, as well as other performance, process or control issues,” he said. “Given those great results, we’re looking forward to what we can keep adding to this process.
“It’s a best-practice system – blending real-time equipment information, digital technology, and collaboration to provide the reliable power generation that our customers expect from us.”
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