Going autonomous: How ABB is supporting utility companies on their digital journeys

Sep 26, 2019

With digital products and solutions complemented by deep domain knowledge and expertise, ABB is helping utility companies in Asia embrace possibilities in digitalising their operations for a more sustainable world.

Many global utility providers have been adopting Industry 4.0 technologies and making the switch to autonomous operations over the last decade, amidst fluctuating commodity prices, deregulation, stricter emissions compliance and higher use of renewables.

Traditional power companies are adopting digital solutions and rethinking their plant processes and business models to increase operational efficiency, boost productivity, lower costs and promote sustainability. ABB, a major player in the power generation business for more than 130 years, has been the partner of choice for many of the world’s top utility companies as they journey towards autonomous operations.

Leveraging rich engineering and automation expertise, the company has been installing its advanced digital technologies, converging operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) to enable remote monitoring of equipment and processes, real-time diagnosis of asset performance, optimization of plant functioning and predictive maintenance.

The factory of the future
An autonomous power plant is possible only with the integration of IT technologies such as smart sensors, big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality, and OT technologies such as advanced pattern recognition software, machine learning capabilities and AI-assisted predictive maintenance software.

Autonomous utilities require envisioning of a new level of digitalisation, with plants increasingly learning to operate without operators, according to Arup Sen, Head of ABB’s Power and Water business in Asia.

“Right now, there is already the possibility of remotely controlling and monitoring a power plant that is not easily accessible, due to geographical or environmental reasons. All the data is fed into the main control centre. Remotely, experts can access the plant for their day-to-day tasks.

“For a plant to run unmanned, the vast amount of data collected on-site needs to be analysed and integrated with the latest Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, enabling the plant to predict and plan. An example might be predicting and planning for the next maintenance activity, based on the result of data analysis, self-learning and artificial intelligence,” said Sen.

Along with data, a complex correlation of different parameters for smooth operations is key to achieving such a “self-healing” power plant. ABB has the required expertise to understand this and support optimal improvements for the future.

ABB, a major player in the power generation business for more than 130 years, has been the partner of choice for many of the world’s top utility companies as they embark on their journey toward autonomous operations.

Implementing control systems
After years of research, ABB has identified the optimal stages for running a self-healing power plant. “Firstly, it must have a world-class control system that runs application software that uses function codes and algorithms best suited to the utility. The next step is that the best process engineers to tune the plant to be fully automated and to run in the best fit curve of performance,” explained Sen.

“Data capture must come with long-term historization and data analysis. Fortunately, today we hold the power in computing both in terms of hardware as well as software to handle enormous amounts of data, run complex algorithms, AI and machine learning.”

A strategy of implementation must be in place so that the control system and the system atop learn from their own best practices, operate based on them, and send essential monitoring data and information to a central place so that necessary actions can be taken when required.

For a developer, this presents a picture of better efficiency and hence cost benefits and higher ROI. “With feed-in information about market data, these may all be possibilities with how autonomous power plants can operate,” Sen said. “Some examples of such ‘feed-in information’ include market level fuel price, emission control standards and grid requirements. These may suggest optimal periods to purchase fuel or switch fuels, optimise combustion efficiency and performance and improve grid stability when it comes to integration with renewables. Grid stability may be improved, for example, by balancing peak load demand and generation capacity.”

Even though a plant has a distributed control system (DCS), often it may run on manual mode or even in auto mode, with loops not tuned to provide the best benefits. ABB Ability™ Performance Optimization for control loop tuning uses control data already gathered, analysed and stored to quickly identify issues, so that corrective tuning can take place to fully use the control system and availability of a production process.

“It gives process engineers the ability to create accurate models to predict events, so they can reduce or eliminate potentially disruptive process bump tests in control loop tuning, enhancing operational efficiency,” Sen explained.

OEMs develop equipment based on principles encompassing the capabilities of AI and software and build in all required algorithms for self-learning, self-operation, self-maintenance, self-optimisation or ordering for routine maintenance, service or spare parts. With the capability built-in and machine learning from the operation data, virtual power plants are only expected to be more powerful and efficient.

ABB Ability™ – sparking transformation
From device to edge to cloud, ABB Ability™ is the company’s all-in-one digital platform that can give utilities valuable insights into asset and plant performance, enabling greater visibility and control over machines, systems and facilities.

ABB has established ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers across the globe, with ABB experts remotely monitoring plants and processes, collecting real-time data on assets and systems, and providing actionable information that can help minimise unplanned downtime, lower operational and maintenance costs and optimise plant reliability and safety.

Solutions for utilities can send notifications when assets or processes are not performing optimally, prompting action from either ABB experts or plant operators. According to Sen, ABB is supporting a shift from reactive-based maintenance to condition-based predictive maintenance, potentially resulting in time- and cost-savings for utility companies.

“One such remote services solution helped a customer lower boiler start-up costs by as much as 15%, saving over $175,000 annually, improving efficiency, and reducing NOx emissions by 5-15%. Another solution will allow a major city in Vietnam to supply clean drinking water and reduce leakage in its water distribution network from 30% to 10% over a five-year period,” he shared.

Solutions for utilities also provide optimisation for virtual power plants and correlation of day-ahead load schedules with updated actual load schedules of the units, forecast deviations, intra-day trading of free capacity, and disturbances/downtimes for each Balance Group in the district. The additional scalability of the system allows thousands of units and customers to implement their own models.

Solution-based data optimisation
Moreover, the solutions for utilities allow better prices for produced energy on the spot and derivatives markets, as well as optimised internal production. They also enable a lower cost of energy compensation and an improved fulfilment of the nominated load schedule. Balancing the infeed of renewables before balancing costs are generated is also made possible. A major challenge on the road to autonomous plants of the future is government regulations, which are particularly stringent when it comes to granting permissions for fully unmanned facilities for nuclear and thermal power plants.

Sen shared, “This is evident, for example, where there are several metrics to be considered, including high pressures and temperatures that might contribute to catastrophic accidents in the absence of human operators or control.”

Getting ahead of challenges
On the other hand, authorities’ regulatory support is also instrumental in the survival and longevity of a power plant. It is necessary to be prepared to keep up and get ahead of constantly changing regulatory frameworks and the key risks associated with virtual power plants.

Cybersecurity is one of the major contention points for virtual power plants that are being regulated and monitored by authorities. Other aspects of regulation may also include the energy pathway to the end users, incentive schemes for older power plants compared with new ones that may operate in the same grids and such.

Pertinent also to power plant developers is the slow but steady withdrawal or reduction of government control and subsidies in the sector. This is expected to transform a lot of traditional patterns as new solutions are becoming increasingly available, like the autonomous running of power plants.

“Whilst renewable energy growth is on the fast track, intermittency has been a key factor in the instability of the grid. This is being addressed through generation scheduling impacting grid stability, where generation mix and intermittency and fragmentation is an issue,” said Sen.

In response, traditional plants must catch up quickly to stay competitive and relevant.

“ABB is continuously revamping offerings to keep up with and complement constantly changing regulatory schemes that assure safety and endurance of the autonomous power plant. This is driven by new strategies that have to keep evolving with new regulations and developments in the sector,” said Sen.

An autonomous future for utilities in Asia
With over 7,000 distributed control systems, ABB has one of the largest installed base of control systems in power generation worldwide. The company is piloting and testing new technologies that use AI and machine learning, with a goal of making ABB solutions more intelligent and enabling safer and more secure operations of utilities in Asia and more widely.

Sen said, “Dedicated research and development centres have been set up closer to customers and internationally to work on big data and AI solutions that can allow utility operators and ABB experts to monitor power and water plants from remotely located control rooms. This work-in-progress technology can enable ABB engineers to interact with on-site assets, using advanced video systems to coordinate with utility customers in their facilities.”

ABB, which has been installing digital solutions for customers for over 40 years, is ready to customise its technologies for utilities in Asia, as the continent’s population continues to grow, demand rises, and end users depend on reliable, safe and uninterrupted power and water supply.


ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a pioneering technology leader with a comprehensive offering for digital industries. With a history of innovation spanning more than 130 years, ABB is today a leader in digital industries with four customer-focused, globally leading businesses: Electrification, Industrial Automation, Motion, and Robotics & Discrete Automation, supported by its common ABB Ability™ digital platform. ABB’s market‑leading Power Grids business will be divested to Hitachi in 2020. ABB operates in more than 100 countries with about 147,000 employees.

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