When the large Pakistani textile maker Sapphire Group wanted to secure a reliable supply of electricity for its mills recently, it didn’t just build a new power plant. The company used a technology called digital twin to model the entire plant inside the cloud, run simulations and come up with the optimal way to design and run it.
In Ireland, the operators of the Whitegate Power Station, near Cork, placed more than 140 sensors throughout the plant. They digitize vibrations, temperature and other data, and feed it into the cloud for analysis. The results help the plant managers monitor and optimize operations in real time. The idea is to improve efficiency and minimize downtime at the 445-megawatt plant, which supplies up to 10 percent of Ireland’s households with electricity.
On the French Riviera, near Nice, another piece of software managing a smart grid is helping a municipality juggle different energy sources and pick the most efficient one.
The digital glue that connects these technologies is Predix, the cloud-based platform for the Industrial Internet developed by GE. “We’ve pulled together all of our software offerings, sensors and domain-specific applications for the power and electricity industry,” says Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer for GE Power, who also runs GE Power’s new Digital Solutions business. “From now on, we’ll be just another GE Power business like nuclear, gas power systems and steam.”
GE has spent $1 billion over the last few years to develop Predix. The platform has allowed GE to securely collect data from jet engines, gas turbines and MRI scanners, analyze it and then use the results to make machines run better. The platform is now open to all developers.
“People are starting to realize that digital technologies are the most potent tool for driving value and efficiency in the energy industry,” Bell says. “We can use it to maximize total plant and grid performance and create new business models that reach all the way to consumers. Imagine if your utility was your best friend, using software to provide reliable electricity, drive decarbonization and even help you participate in the energy market by allowing you to sell back into the grid the electricity you make with the solar panels on your roof. This is happening now.”
The opportunities are huge. For starters, the world needs to add a lot of power — as much as 50 percent of existing capacity over the next two decades. Experts estimate that 1.3 billion people still live without access to a reliable supply of electricity.
To fix that, countries will need not only turbines and generators, but also software to get the most out of the machines. A study released by the World Economic Forum in January estimated that optimizing how electricity gets delivered over the grid from power plants to customers could save between $440 billion to $1.2 trillion, while lowering peak demand, reducing emissions and creating new jobs.
Right now, Bell says, GE is the only company that knows how to make both the machines that make electricity and the software that runs them. “We understand the industrial and the digital side,” he says. “The utilities that embrace digital will redefine the industry. They will be the leaders.”