Laura Anderson of Siemens Energy talks exclusively to Kelvin Ross about the digital transformation of the energy sector.
“One of the things I’ve been thinking about in the last couple of years is this: Where is the big growth and the big impact in digital?”
Laura Anderson certainly isn’t the only one in the energy sector mulling this digital dilemma – however, she’s far better placed than most to be able to identify a ‘next big thing’.
As Senior Vice-President of Controls and Digitalisation at Siemens Energy, she describes herself as “a geek for linking long-term market trends and the strategies needed to capitalize on them”.
She says she does this by “wearing a lot of hats”, including researcher, data detective, idea-generator and storyteller. And she adds that what makes her unique “is my ability to navigate grey areas and uncomplicate the complex”.
Which is good news: because I want her to uncomplicate the digital transformation of the energy sector up until now and then peer into that often greyest of grey areas – the future.
However, before she looks to the future, she wants to set what comes next in the context of what’s gone before, particularly in terms of digital innovations in technologies such as gas turbines.
Solving old problems with new solutions
She says digitalisation on the traditional power plant “is relatively straight-forward – we know those use cases and we’ve known them for 40 years”.
“When I think about it from a digital perspective, we can see where the path is going for conventional power plants.
“Traditionally, we have had a lot of fantastic data on the rotating equipment, and through controls and automation we have been expanding that. We can optimize it so that you have better outcomes and better efficiencies by looking at the whole system.
“Before digitalisation, we were perhaps suboptimizing a little bit. Now we can use AI and machine learning to re-optimize to get more out of where we’re going. We are using these digital tools to help us answer old problems.”
However, she states “that’s not necessarily where the big innovation is”.
“I think a bit of a game-changer is going to be on remote operation.” To illustrate her point, she highlights a successful pilot Siemens Energy carried out with Florida Power & Light to enable remote start-up on one of their plants.
“And starting up a power plant with no-one on site is not a trivial matter – yet it was like a push-button remote start that we managed to achieve.
“So what we are starting to see is this idea of the power plant moving from being a fully-manned operation to more of a ‘smart machine’ – it will do what it needs to do and if it needs a person on site, it will let you know.”
This, says Anderson, “is a reflection of the energy transition, where you are starting to see power plants as one further set of resources: as a commodity to be deployed on a ‘right power, right place, right emissions’ basis”.
Remote operating proves its worth
Remote operating is something we have all had to do in our work over the past 18 months during the pandemic, and lockdown conditions presented significant challenges for power plant operators.
“Our customers are reluctant to allow more people inside a plant than are absolutely needed. And in some cases you had lockdown on sites, with people sleeping there.”
She says suddenly there was a demand for Siemens Energy’s already established remote-worker concept, which would see a field worker don wearable technology to talk to an expert who may often be on another continent.
“We would be able to outfit them to be able to see what was going on and accompany someone while they were doing some of the more advanced checks.”
She says that with international travel at a standstill, “customers appreciated that we had a solution that we could deploy around the world – remotely”.
And some customers certainly needed that solution: “We had a few who really had a crisis. One on the industrial side had a plant explosion: his experts were in Europe and the plant was in Asia. So we got a call: ‘Can you help?’
“We had the right equipment not too far away, we got it over, and we were able to digitally connect with their experts to be able to triage – that was incredibly helpful.
“We were not necessarily the experts in providing the underlying information technology, but we were able to put together a packet of technologies for that particular situation.”
Did she learn anything from those experiences of live video engineering from afar? She laughs: “We found out that having a camera on the head is much like watching The Blair Witch Project: you get dizzy. So we started using chest-mounted cameras, which are much easier to follow. Also using Google glasses gave field workers the opportunity to see illustrations that would point them directly to what they needed to do.”
Lasting impact of the pandemic
She says that as we come out of the pandemic, “we’ll probably go back to sometimes putting experts on the ground for longer periods of time, but I think a lot of pandemic practices will most likely be here to stay”.
“COVID-19 has accelerated certain patterns of adoption. I think the pace of change is now being dictated by both the virus and governments and companies coming up with green goals – the pace is not being dictated by technology or its limitations.”
So, with that in mind, I ask her if she believes the pandemic will accelerate a green energy transition.
“I think the pandemic has forced us to get comfortable with certain technologies in a much more immediate way than otherwise. And I think it engineered big changes to be able to work from home. But in terms of the bigger context of the industry – no, I don’t think so.
“Why? Because I have a feeling that we will be back to our usual consumption patterns relatively quickly – I think we will be a bit back to where we were.”
She adds that the pandemic “has presented people with an opportunity to realise that they can get along with less, so there may be some longer-term consumption trends – but I wouldn’t see it as being a huge thing”.
“I think the remote trend on generation assets will be an interesting one to watch and see to what extent it picks up in the more price-competitive markets – especially as they move more to becoming peakers.”
Drilling down to things specifically digital, she says there will be “a lot more momentum” around the use of microgrids, AI and blockchain in relation to green energy.
“I also think we’ll start to see more AI on trading models and we’ll be able to better balance the demand-supply equation.”
And that, she says, “will start to make the decentralized concept really ‘live’ more, because while there are current initiatives, there seems to me to be too little clarity on which way they are really going and which approach will be a good one.”
More AI, machine learning and blockchain means more data – and that means an increased security risk around that data.
“There are going to be some big cybersecurity challenges that we need to get our arms around,” says Anderson.
“We have a lot of remote assets: how do we keep them protected to the best of our ability? The speed of cybersecurity is turning up, as well as the sophistication of actors in terms of getting in and then making money by stopping production.”
Talking about the broader digital transformation of energy, Anderson believes the sector has come a long way.
“A lot of companies have matured their digital thinking around their digital stack. If you think back five years when the early software platforms were starting to come out, nobody really knew what to do in terms of digital.
“Now they have done enough trial and error to get an understanding of their stack. The maturity of customers and their thinking has significantly changed over the last five years.”
She believes the digital front-runners will have a philosophy that will dictate the pace and direction of change, and that philosophy is one of co-operation, adaptation and evolution.
“The time of monolithic solutions is probably over: it’s going towards customers’ individual needs and the skills going forward will be the ability to listen and understand what is actually needed.”
The potential of AI and blockchain
Professor Monika Sturm is Siemens Energy’s Principal Key Expert in Digitalization – Laura Anderson sums her up as “our blockchain expert”.
And while Professor Sturm will use the term blockchain, she prefers distributed ledger technology – it’s more precise.
“Blockchain is a young technology and it’s been very hyped in past years,” she says. “At Siemens Energy, we are not concentrating on developing a new kind of blockchain concept: our focus is on using the existing technology to enable us to offer new digital services to the energy market.”
She talks about the digital sustainability of blockchain and of the need for ‘correct’ data – or ‘good enough’ data.
She explains: “For me, the important part in the blockchain arena is that we keep control over the data. We can distribute the data in a trusted way so that everybody who is offering the data keeps a form of control.
“And here, the management between AI and blockchain has a very important role. Because an AI algorithm or machine learning algorithm runs on data, and if that data is manipulated, then the AI or ML output will not be correct.
“So I think the combination between AI and a distributed ledger technology layer is where the potential lies to enable services running on correct data in a way where everybody keeps a level of control – it really is secure data sharing.”
She finds the changes – and the speed of change – in the energy sector fascinating. “Up to now, we all get our energy through a utility – a retailer. How do we know we will have these retailers in five years? Or will there simply be a platform where I log on and receive my contract?
“This is what we are really working on: to understand this change and manage it. It is so interesting to me: we can define it and design it.”
And she stresses: “It’s not an area where only start-ups should be active. We team up with our customers. Because if they don’t move, they may be out of the market in five to ten years.”
The democratisation of digital
Laura Anderson introduces Stefan Lichtenburger as “all things AI”.
He says what has changed over the last five years is “the democratisation of digital technologies and their methods and means: that has exposed many people to digital technologies”.
He adds: “What is going on now is more like a consolidation – not in terms of technology, but in terms of how to use it: how to make it applicable; how you foster business cases and make best use of digital technologies for people and for business.
“And that runs into the trend of decarbonisation. Together, they will provide us with new ideas, new business models and cases that will be normal in five years – and yet we have not even thought of them now.”