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Digital Oasis: Sheltering In Place Due To COVID-19, Algerian Electrical Utility Embraces Remote Operations

May 11, 2020

Algeria began responding to the spread of COVID-19 in early February, deploying a series of increasingly protective measures. Like countries around the world, it asked citizens to keep their distance from one another and to work from home whenever possible.

The leadership of SPE, a subsidiary of the SONELGAZ group — Algeria’s national electricity and gas company, immediately saw the challenge. They would have to ensure the continuation of electricity supply under the new conditions while keeping their staff safe.

SPE quickly devised and implemented an action plan, part of which included the enabling of remote work for staff employed at its mission-critical monitoring center. These are the workers responsible for ensuring that several SPE power stations are operating safely. Using laptops as their only tool, analysts and managers from the monitoring center can now execute from home tasks which are usually performed from the center.

The utility could do it thanks to the digital platform and infrastructure available at the monitoring center. Just over two years ago, GE and SPE opened the first monitoring center with digital technology using predictive maintenance algorithms. This means that three power plants are already monitored from the central management facility in the capital city of Algiers. Nine more power plants are scheduled to be added in 2020 and 2021.

The software runs on GE’s Predix Asset Performance Management (APM) platform. The platform comes equipped with the capability to perform all of its functions remotely. Although SPE didn’t originally intend to use it in this fashion, the coronavirus pandemic changed all that, sending GE and SPE engineers into action.

For GE’s part, that meant giving key SPE analysts an overview of every power plant’s status. The system also allows them to access computer models of physical assets — their digital twins — and observe how the system reacts to potential changes in operations. Today, the managers can monitor the system from home with Predix-enabled laptops. “It’s our first experience, because we haven’t had to do it before,” says Mehdi Adni, the team leader for predictive maintenance at SPE. “We just can connect to it from our homes and continue our work.”

algeria map

GE is software is helping SPE, a subsidiary of the SONELGAZ group, keep the power on in Algeria, Africa's largest country, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

Even in normal times, Predix has proved to be a boon for SPE: Using 10,000 sensors across the plants, its APM system uses predictive computer analytics and the continuous real-time data feeds to estimate when parts may need repair. The result is that SPE will be able to maintain adequate power supply to the country while scheduling needed repairs before something breaks down.

Ordinarily, five SPE analysts staff the central facility in Algiers. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has people working from home, though, a crew of three are able to use the remote operations network from GE to monitor the fleet — using the same screens, in fact, they get at the office. “Generally, the work of the analyst is the same remotely as in the control center,” Adni says. “The social-relations aspect is missing. Brainstorming has become Skype-storming. Otherwise, the result is almost the same.”

While waiting out the pandemic, SPE is embracing the bright side of the sudden need to work from home: “COVID-19 has been an opportunity for SPE to see new horizons,” SPE management says. “We’re looking to see if we can adapt better to a crisis like this one and maybe improve some of our procedures.”

Since the 1980s, GE has maintained a sizable presence in Algeria. In that pact, GE and Sonelgaz formed GE Algeria Turbines (GEAT) — based in Ain Yagout, a small city in the northeast — to construct 26 heavy-duty gas turbines, 12 steam turbines and 38 generators to meet the country’s long-term power targets. Today GEAT manages GE contractual services at 12 SPE power plants, including GE power generation APM solutions.

“It’s only been two years we’ve been digital, so I’m full of hope,” Adni says. “This will allow us to improve our analysts’ experience. And if we can combine GE’s and SPE’s experience, that could lead to some great results.”