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Digital Transformation

Utilities Find Small Digital Transformation Steps Lead to Big Returns

April 21, 2021

By AnneTurkowski, MarkHachenski, JamesNyenhuis

Digital transformation. It’s a buzzword we often hear but may not fully understand. Despite much interest in this concept, many questions remain around exactly what it is, what it means and, perhaps most importantly, where do you start?

“The biggest misconception about digital transformation is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Mark Hachenski, director of digital solutions for the power and water industries. “And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s helpful to think of digital transformation as a journey, where each small step can lead to tangible benefits—improved performance, O&M savings, better reliability and more flexibility. One approach is to explore the digital transformation roadmap and its role in evolving toward a future with autonomous operations.

Leveraging proven software and technologies—such as wireless solutions, digital twin simulationadvanced control applications and data analytics—can have game-changing impacts on everyday operations. A closer look reveals this in more detail.


Advanced Monitoring

Advanced monitoring tackles one of the power generation industry’s biggest O&M expenses: maintenance and labor costs.

Outfitting equipment with wireless sensors and modern data network architecture provides greater insight into asset health and performance.

It also makes it possible to automate manual rounds, which can be a game-changer as it improves operator safety, reduces unplanned equipment breakdowns and frees up highly trained operators to spend more time performing high-value tasks, such as data analysis. In most cases, automating manual rounds pays for itself in less than a year.

Advanced Control

Advanced monitoring sets the stage for the next step in the digital roadmap: advanced control. This step harnesses machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to optimize processes. The result is more-consistent operations that, in turn, improve the flexibility, availability and reliability of power-generating assets. A prime example is load control.

In today’s environment, units are typically ramping up and down more frequently in response to system demand fluctuations, according to Jim Nyenhuis, manager of performance consulting for the power industry.

“Advanced control enables plants to ramp to setpoint more quickly and precisely, supporting grid operations and providing opportunities for additional revenue,” he explains.

These saving are so significant, most utilities realize a return on investment in less than a year.



The additional intelligence and capabilities of the first two steps in the digital transformation journey are foundational to creating opportunities for even greater consistency through procedural integration. A closer look at a startup optimization project at a combined-cycle unit demonstrates how this is possible.

In the initial stages of an optimization project, historical process data is collected and used to generate models of the plant’s current operating performance to identify opportunities for improvement. Based on this information, dynamic performance metrics that are the basis for tracking and validating improvements throughout the project are developed and deployed. Once the optimized startup process is validated through analysis and testing, the focus turns to reducing variability through increased task automation and reduced dependency on manual operator intervention.

As indicated by the black dots in the illustration (below), procedural integration helps ensure consistency and paves the way for semi-autonomous startup and savings of approximately $300,000 per year.



Combining software and technologies from all levels of the digital transformation journey with analytics and prognostic applications will enable a shift toward autonomous operations in the future. Incorporating machine learning and AI digital solutions will further boost plant performance, optimize maintenance and operations, and increase safety. The evolution toward autonomous operation will allow operators to become process supervisors, focusing on critical decision-making activities that contribute to further operational improvements.

Remote Operations Control Centers

A great example of how digital technologies work together to improve performance are remote operations control centers (RoCC). Emerson is working today with customers who see the value of deploying remote operations centers to reduce O&M costs and optimize resources. Bringing together a utility’s fleet management, engineering and M&D staff under one roof offers opportunities for increased collaboration, interaction and efficiency. Inevitably, this increased collaboration further boosts reliability and availability.

Beginning the Journey

Utilities eager to begin or continue exploring digitalization often find it useful to partner with experienced suppliers that can help them navigate this journey.

“Collaborating with the right partner can help provide clarity and a path forward,” explains Nyenhuis. “Leveraging proven software and technologies—such as wireless solutions, digital twin simulation, advanced control applications and data analytics—can have game-changing impacts on everyday operations.”

You can learn more about how power producers can confidently take small data-driven steps that quickly deliver ROI by watching an on-demand POWER webinar featuring Emerson’s Hachenski and Nyenhuis, and moderated by POWER Magazine’s executive editor, Aaron Larson. Visit the Power Industry page on for more on the technologies and solutions to help drive digital transformation. And don’t forget to comment below to share your stories of your digital transformation journey!