H Power Grid

How digital solutions can fill growing gaps in power grids

Nov. 9, 2022
"Embedded intelligence capabilities, which enable equipment to monitor its own performance, is particularly useful here."

By Ron Beck, AspenTech senior director of industry marketing

A reliable power supply is crucial to plant and factory operations. Unfortunately, power grids are in trouble and straining to meet growing energy demands, particularly from energy-intensive plant machinery and assets. Recent headlines show the sheer amount of strain on grids. According to some experts, power grids are growing increasingly unreliable and cannot keep up with rising demand.  

Despite these challenges facing power grids, industrial organizations can overcome these hurdles and address future low-carbon energy needs by integrating digital technologies into their facilities’ operations. Digital solutions can help industrial organizations overcome energy demand issues by finding the low-cost/high-availability options, by optimizing energy usage, and by enabling them to plan for future operations.

The challenge of rising energy demand

One of the largest issues facing power grids is the Earth’s growing population. Currently, our planet is home to 7.56 billion people. The population is expected to grow to 9.8 billion people by 2050. Additionally, the planet’s upper and middle-class populations, which generally consume more resources, are expected to grow by 40% in the coming years.

This growth will drive significant demand for power grids worldwide. In fact, the US Energy Information Administration estimates these factors are spurring a 50% increase in global energy demand by 2050. As the mobility sector electrifies and industry electrifies some of its highest energy-consuming units to reduce carbon emissions, electricity demand will increase faster than the overall energy demand trend. It could double in demand by 2050. As inflexible and older grids contend with growing demand, their reliability dips and the need for investment will increase. We’ve already seen this in California, which narrowly avoided rolling blackouts this summer when electricity demand peaked due to high temperatures. 

These hurdles are particularly costly for utility companies and industry. As grids become increasingly stressed and unreliable, utilities fall back on expensive peaking plants and must buy industrial “captive power” at high market rates. The cost of maintaining normal power supply escalates dramatically during these periods and generating-plant assets are stressed as they are run for longer periods without maintenance.

A perfect example of this is when Texas experienced a state-wide deep freeze, which placed severe strain on its power grids. The price of wholesale electricity shot up over 10,000%, to about $9,000 per megawatt hour, in a single day. Dramatic price spikes like this can be financially disastrous for industrial organizations. California has seen similar challenges, and the New England Power Pool is projecting challenges in maintaining reliable electricity in the Northeast this winter. Of course, this is nothing new in geographies such as India and Southeast Asia that have been facing these challenges as well.

How digital solutions can help 

While industrial organizations contend with the spillover impact of growing energy demand and grid-reliability problems on their critical operations, they can create resilient sites and shield their production from these challenges. Implementing digital solutions can help monitor and optimize facilities' utility and power usage and improve asset resilience. Here are a few ways digital technologies can optimize, improve, and secure a facility’s power requirements and carbon footprint: 

●      Minimize utility costs and carbon emission footprint. Digital solutions can dynamically adjust use of internal and external power and utilities, such as grid electricity, captive renewables, cogeneration, and combined heat and power. Each of these has its own pricing and carbon-emission profile. Utility digital-twin models map these costs and carbon emissions against the current and projected utility loads of each unit and equipment in the plant, employing the right utilities at the right time to optimize product, carbon emission and electricity security all at the same time. 

●      Create resiliency through microgrids.  Specifically, the scalable digital-grid technologies of distributed energy-resources management (DERMS) will optimize provision of power to critical process and plant units while optimizing use of captive power at the industrial site. A well designed microgrid provides the industrial site with optimized use of electricity, the resilience to disconnect from the regional grid during periods of regional grid stress, and a high level of cybersecurity.  

●      Ensuring high availability and reliability. Digital tools can help evaluate options against current and future demand conditions and make investments in the right places to ensure close to 100% reliability of power supply to operations. They look at stochastics and periodic variabilities such as weather, take into account equipment reliability, understand which aspects of the system will improve overall availability of production, and recommend capital investments on a rational, analytical basis.

●      Understand current power demands. As companies manage ever-changing energy pricing and revenue models, they need accurate insight into how equipment is functioning. Embedded intelligence capabilities, which enable equipment to monitor its own performance, is particularly useful here. Armed with valuable insights into asset performance, energy consumption, and any required maintenance, you can make informed decisions on how much power a facility needs, and plan ahead for times of energy scarcity. For example, if it’s known which assets consume the most energy at a given time of day, you can account for that in planning when to most intensively utilize those machines, to avoid times of highest strain on energy grids when the grid has lowest reliability. Tools here include first principles based digital-twin models and asset-wide production-planning models calibrated continuously against measured plant performance and conditions.

●      Forecast operations. Software tools can also help industrial companies forecast facilities’ future power demands. Specifically, digital-twin technologies—or virtual copies of an asset—give plant operators detailed insights into how a tool or machine operates. Digital-twin technologies reproduce an asset down to the smallest detail, so users can simulate how an asset will perform under specific circumstances. In the case of power demands, fluctuations can be seen that will affect the performance of an asset before those shifts in power supply ever happen. These forecasts allow for planning as to how a plant should be operated under various conditions and to ensure most critical units always receive power. With these insights, plant operators can build operations plans for times of high energy demand and save the company money.  

The pressure on power grids is only going to increase as demand grows. To keep up, industrial organizations must integrate digital solutions into their operations. These solutions can help expand operations, overcome outage hurdles, and ultimately provide more value to customers.