Digital strategy for power management at the world’s largest chemical company

Dec. 30, 2019
Digitizing electrical infrastructure enables an unprecedented level of visibility.

By M. Lee Perry, Jr., BASF electrical design engineer

Although all industrial companies face similar challenges regarding macroeconomic and technology trends, the chemical sector in particular is pressured by serving virtually every segment of the economy while specializing in a select few product lines. Further, it’s a highly regulated industry, production is typically automated and requires a high level of safety and security measures. Finally, the chemical sector must be agile and proactive to global trends.

BASF's M. Lee Perry, Jr.

The pressure is on for chemical organizations to show significant improvements in efficiency and profitability, often with fewer resources. Digital transformation is a natural progression, but it proves tricky to find specific, well-defined application use cases of digitization that make financial sense and provide material benefits with existing facilities and production units as well as new capital investments.

Since energy is a key factor in the early steps of the processing value chain, and safety is of utmost importance for any chemical business, ensuring a steady flow of electrical energy is critical. Digitizing electrical infrastructure enables an unprecedented level of data and visibility into performance that has far-reaching impacts beyond just keeping the lights on. It helps mitigate these five risks:

  • Risks to safety: Electrical-system issues are recognized as the cause of 22% of workplace fires, while an estimated 25% of electrical failures are attributed to loose or faulty connections. This highlights a need for greater vigilance in finding sources of overheating. If a facility-wide or localized outage occurs, it’s crucial that power be restored immediately to ensure productivity and worker safety.
  • Risks to uptime: Studies have shown that 30-40% of business downtime is caused by power-quality disturbances, and that 70% of those disturbances originate within the premises. Even when the outage is mere minutes, these incidents can have a butterfly effect at a massive cost to business, not just in terms of productivity but also damaged equipment like a failed transformer. In fact, in just one year, power interruptions cost the US economy approximately $59 billion. Preventing downtime requires “seeing into the future” or, rather, being able to identify when conditions on your power network are deviating beyond safe parameters, or when protection settings have deviated from their original design.
  • Risks to energy efficiency: Beyond the costs of power-related interruptions, there are also the economic costs of inefficiency. The US Department of Energy estimates that “with the application of new and existing technologies, buildings can be made up to 80% more efficient or even become ‘net zero’ energy buildings with the incorporation of on-site renewable generation.” This is a huge opportunity for organizations to reduce energy consumption, which represents a huge percentage of operating costs for chemical plants. Doing so requires gaining visibility into every aspect of energy, from billing, to consumption, to onsite energy production.
  • Risks to operational efficiency: Another big part of operational costs is the time and money facility teams spend maintaining power and buildings systems, often with limited staff. By implementing a program of condition-based predictive maintenance, a building can save up to 20% per year on maintenance and energy costs, while increasing the projected lifetime of the building by several years. However, this requires a new level of analytic capabilities that can help predict equipment needs and enable collaboration with experts when needed. 
  • Risks to compliance: Emissions regulations are becoming common in most countries, while many corporations are implementing their own sustainability goals. Meeting these objectives is challenging without the necessary energy-consumption data. Acquiring the data necessary to manage electrical safety, reliability, and efficiency means depending more on connected systems, which brings more risk of cyber-attacks and requires enhanced cybersecurity.

Like many, we at BASF are on a journey to modernize our facilities and achieve new efficiencies and growth through digitization. An example of this is a recent expansion of an important plant that produces a herbicide the US agricultural industry relies heavily upon. We sought to tackle the most fundamental ingredient to our operations—energy—to maximize plant uptime, productivity and safety.

Major electrical-infrastructure upgrades were implemented to support the digital and physical advancements of the plant. We chose Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Asset Advisor to be integrated into the substation, allowing for improved asset visibility and a better vantage point for asset health. At the core of this solution is a connected-services hub that proactively collects data-driven insight for BASF through cloud-based analytics. We are now able to collect data from our field devices, aggregate this data using an edge control and a one-way push of info to the cloud (securely), and then put it through analytics and machine learning from which we can draw insights. 

Aging profiles, life expectancy, and global-health indexes are continuously computed and reported on the substation’s 63 critical electrical assets, along with more than 100 other variables. The Asset Advisor platform makes continuous monitoring simple through a customized dashboard highlighting overall global-health index and specific-asset status. This information enables us to take corrective action before experiencing expensive—and possibly dangerous—asset failures.

The digital transformation of our power-management strategy has streamlined our processes so we can better meet customer needs. We now have the data that we need to make the right decisions at the right time. Data equals value.