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Digital Electricity

From Gigawatts To Gigabytes: New "Mission Control" Center Will Help New York’s NYPA Become World’s First Digital Utility

Tomas Kellner
December 12, 2017
Charles Proteus Steinmetz, one of the leading lights who spread electricity across America a century ago, often pointed out that energy in the form of heat, water or steam was the raw material of the electrical industry. The GE engineer and inventor hated waste and urged industry to harness energy “whenever [it was] available as a by-product” and convert it into electricity. Today, he would probably say the same thing about data.
Even though modern power plants generate gigabytes of valuable information every day, much of it never gets used. But that’s changing. New York Power Authority, the largest state public utility in the United States, just opened a new 25,000-square-foot digital “mission control” center, in White Plains, New York. The center allows engineers to process gigabytes of data and mine it for valuable insights. It also enables them to control all 16 of NYPA’s power plants as well as key points within its massive power transmission network stretching across 1,400 miles, which supplies a quarter of the state’s electricity, including power for New York’s airports and subways. “With the opening of this state-of-the-art center, we are modernizing our state energy system and creating a more resilient, reliable and flexible power grid helping to grow our clean energy economy,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. (Some 75 percent of NYPA’s electricity comes from hydropower.)

The new facility, called Integrated Smart Operations Center, or iSOC, comes complete with an 81-foot video wall where operators can review insights supplied by data analytics and use them to predict possible failures, schedule asset maintenance for the least disruptive times and even compare notes with their colleagues in the field. “This is just the beginning on our journey,” said NYPA President Gil Quiniones. He said that NYPA was on its way to becoming “the first end-to-end digital utility, not in the U.S., but in the world.”

 width= Top: NYPA President Gil Quiniones said that NYPA was on its way to becoming “the first end-to-end digital utility, not in the U.S., but in the world.” Image credit: NYPA. Above: GE is helping NYPA connect its hydroelectric plant downstream from Niagara Falls to the Industrial Internet. Image credit: Getty Images.

The benefits can be huge. Bill Ruh, CEO of GE Digital, which is supplying NYPA with software and data analytics, says that industrial digitization is a bigger opportunity than the consumer Internet. The International Energy Agency reported last month that in the U.S. alone, digitalization had the potential to save around $80 billion per year, or about 5 percent of total annual power-generation costs. Quiniones says the center has already helped NYPA save $3 million, and the utility expects to recoup $1 billion in efficiencies over the next decade.

Sanjay Chopra, a solution architect from GE Digital involved in the NYPA project, says that a true digital utility will “digitize everything from the turbines to the toasters and all that’s in the middle. As a consumer, I want to be able to use electricity in the most efficient way and know how the price affects me on an hour-by-hour basis,” he says. “As a producer, I need to be able to understand what the demand is out there for electricity, and how do I send onto the grid the cheapest and most efficient electricity I have.”

Centers like the one NYPA just opened will play a key role. It collects information from sensors about temperature, vibrations, wear and factors like energy usage. It can also pull in weather and other data from outside sources. The information first travels to GE’s Asset Performance Management software powered by Predix, GE’s application development platform for the Industrial Internet. Apps running on the system help operators understand the conditions inside NYPA’s power plants, transformers, cables and other electrical assets, predict and prevent equipment failures, and avoid power outages. “We help them proactively resolve a problem before it becomes a major disruption,” Chopra says. “They can use the insights to optimize maintenance on those assets and arrange it when there are scheduled downtimes, rather than taking costly, unplanned downtimes.”

 width= GE engineers Eskil Berg, Charles Steinmetz, Ernst Berg, and Langdon Gibson (left to right) pose in raincoats on the "Maid of the Mist" boat ride at Niagara Falls. The team was taking a break from work on the high voltage alternating-current transmission line form Niagara Falls to Buffalo, New York, built in the 1890s.. Image credit: Museum on Innovation and Science Schenectady.

One app, for example, allows NYPA to pull in marine information and monitor boat traffic near its subsea lines crossing from the mainland to Long Island. NYPA can use it to alert captains of nearby ships to refrain from dropping anchor and damaging the cables. Another app, called NY Energy Manager, is gathering data from 11,000 buildings in the state and pieces of the most power-hungry equipment, and allows customers to reduce their costs by operating them in a more efficient manner.

The system also allows NYPA to build “digital twins.” These virtual representations of the equipment understand how the assets operate normally, flag readings that are out of bounds, and send warnings to NYPA engineers in the iSOC. These engineers can take a closer look, discuss the findings with their peers across the network and schedule maintenance, if necessary. Operators also can use the system, which can monitor equipment made by GE and other manufacturers, to simulate multiple scenarios and predict possible outcomes.

Betsy Timoney, GE Digital’s liaison with the NYPA, says that in the future, the system will include an analysis of “relational data” that will allow the utility to combine financial information about, say, maintenance costs and the impact of a potential problem on performance. “The next big thing will allow them to look at how much it would cost to do something this year versus next year,” she says.

Ruh called the opening “a seminal moment” signaling the first phase of a power-industry transformation that will reshape how utilities do business. Said Ruh: “NYPA is laying the blueprint for how every utility in the world can operate.”

Even Steinmetz would be surprised!