Virtual plant or digital twin are a couple of the buzz words 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, 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 much wider variety of equipment over a distributed area. Cheaper processing power means that much larger numbers of equipment can be monitored and analyzed with fewer engineers.
This transition to more digital information is happening but 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. Combined with the conservative financial attitude of Utilities will mean reaching 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 coming 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 have 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 the need for 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, integration of 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 more easily be made. Additionally, the data criteria, data integration, and processes developed for the sub-set of data will provide a base from which to expand as additional data sets are brought into the initiative.
For most Utilities, and in particular transmission and distribution, 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 because the maintenance manager was able to access the damage without ever leaving the office because the virtual plant has the necessary information to determine the actual damage and the correct material and effort for restoration.