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June 5, 2018

Preparing for a Transmission and Distribution Virtual Plant

Ron Miller

Ron Miller

Executive Director, EAM

This article was originally published online on the Utilities Tech Outlook site

Virtual plant or digital twin are a couple of the buzzwords plant maintenance professionals hear. Go to any conference and you will be inundated with all that the digital world is bringing to maintenance. But the fact is none of this is new, it is only an evolution. Generation plants have had a digital representation of equipment for decades. Asset management systems had equipment records, and SCADA systems brought operating information to the maintenance planner's fingertips. With temperature, vibration and other information engineers have been doing predictive maintenance analysis and planning since shortly after muscle cars ruled American roads.

So other than marketing, what is new and what is driving the buzz? The short answer is cost. Maintenance costs are rising while the cost of sensors, connectivity and computing power is falling. Where once it was only financially sound to fully instrument in-plant equipment or specific high value or high criticality items, it is now feasible to add sensors to a wider variety of equipment over a distributed area. Cheaper processing power means a larger numbers of equipment can be monitored and analyzed with fewer engineers.

This transition to digital information is happening, but it will not happen overnight. Particularly in the transmission and distribution area where equipment lasts for decades and is often run to fail even if it could be monitored. Combination with the conservative financial attitude of utilities to reach a full virtual plant for transmission and distribution assets is still years away.

But there are pockets within the T&D space where rich data is arriving or may already be available. These pockets can be the catalyst to move forward with a virtual plant data initiative. Utilities that have a Smart Grid program in place use data to create a more rich virtual plant picture. If that data is not being fully utilized,a business case can be made to extract more value from the data through integration and analysis.

Distributed distribution is also driving the need to collect and analyze more data but it is usually not directly asset related. Yet there is still an opportunity, either from an operational standpoint, of knowing the operational attributes and maintenance schedule of those resources or a new business standpoint of becoming a service provider to the asset owners. These are the types of opportunities which can make the business case for a virtual plant data initiative.

Since the goal of a virtual plant is to allow for the decision making to be driven from the virtual data without any extensive field investigation, the quality of the virtual plant data is paramount. Thus, a virtual plant data initiative must look at data quality and accuracy for existing data, incoming data. integrating data from multiple sources and the data governance processes to ensure the data is recorded and maintained at acceptable levels of quality and accuracy.

A virtual plant data initiative does not have to be all-inclusive. By focusing on a subset of data, such as distributed generation, the business case will easily be made. Additionally, the data criteria, data integration, and processes developed for the subset of data will provide a basis for expansion as additional data sets are brought into the initiative.

For most utilities, transmission and distribution in particular, the virtual plant will be a few years away. But now is the time to set the foundation. The future will come when every pole has an inclination measurement device and every conductor a strain detector. Following a storm, a drone will fly the route to ensure it is open. Crews and materials will be dispatched, with work orders already created to the right location, with the right materials as the maintenance manager was able to access the damage without ever leaving the office since the virtual plant has the necessary information to determine the actual damage, and the correct material and effort for restoration.