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IoT Upgrades for Asia’s Power Sector

Southeast Asian countries are adopting cutting-edge information technology to improve the efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of fossil fuel power plants that the region relies on to meet surging energy demand.

Japanese trading house Marubeni and Global Power Synergy Co., an affiliate of Thailand’s national oil company PTT, have reached a basic agreement to install sensors at existing power plants that will allow operational data to be gathered and analyzed.

A gas-fired plant operated by GPSC in Rayong Province is the leading candidate to become the first facility to receive the sensors. An artificial intelligence system is expected to begin running after six months of data collection. The system will notify managers about optimal operational settings and failure risks to avoid unexpected shutdowns. Manufacturers of electrical generators vie to improve efficiency by as little as 0.1%, but “these digital systems are expected to reap far greater results,” said Masayuki Nishida, manager of Marubeni Thailand’s power project division.

Smart power generation using internet of things technology is still a rarity, even in advanced countries. This will be the first such project in Thailand and is expected to cost several million dollars initially. GPSC will introduce the system to other plants, depending on the results from Rayong. The PTT group is eyeing internet of things technology for use in industrial equipment beyond power plants.

“For the past 300 years, man has learned how to operate machines,” said Surong Bulakul, chairman of GPSC and an adviser to PTT. “The machines [have become] cleaner and more reliable, but we still have to detect what is happening to them [and handle] maintenance. The new technology will enable the machines to tell us what to do. The machines will be operating by themselves.”

STAYING IN TOUCH Other countries are also working to harness such technology in their power plants.

In July, Indonesian state-run power company PJB reached an agreement with U.S. industrial conglomerate General Electric to introduce Predix, an industrial internet of things platform, at 21 sites.

Several thousand sensors will be installed at each plant to collect data. Analyzing the vast trove of information will allow operators to determine the root causes of breakdowns, enabling the utility to “better predict and prevent outages before they happen,” according to GE.

Southeast Asia’s six largest economies, including Indonesia and Thailand, used roughly 900 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2016, a 60% jump from 2007, according to statistics from U.K. energy company BP. The region is on track to overtake Japan, which uses about 1 trillion kilowatt-hours annually.

Although solar and wind power generation are growing in Southeast Asia, the lion’s share of electricity is still generated from the region’s plentiful coal and natural gas.

Most countries want to limit new equipment costs and are optimizing existing plants to squeeze more power out of the same amount of fuel. Net energy importers like Thailand are particularly concerned about efficiency, according to one Japanese maker of heavy electrical equipment.

Japanese companies are also bringing internet of things technology to the Philippines. Toshiba is supporting optimization efforts at local conglomerate DMCI Holdings’ Calaca power plant in southern Luzon. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding in July.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings, will introduce such technology at a conventional power plant in Pagbilao, another municipality in southern Luzon. The failure detection system has already been tested at a plant in Japan.

The two companies estimate that a 1% improvement in efficiency can save several million dollars annually at a conventional power plant with an output of 1 million kilowatts.

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