Digitalization is not about the hardware, it’s about the service, Stefan Nygård of Wärtsilä tells Kelvin Ross

Some years ago someone said that players in the publishing industry must ‘digitize or die’ if they were going to successfully transition from print to online.

I don’t think anyone has ever presented the power industry with such an ultimatum, nor does it need it – the industry is embracing the latest cutting-edge technologies in its equipment and plants.

But what exactly does ‘digitalization’ mean in the energy sector?

“It’s about rethinking services with the help of modern technology to make those services easier, faster and more valuable,” says Stefan Nygård, General Manager of Product Management Asset Performance Optimization at Wärtsilä.

The Finnish company was an early adopter of digital technology, and continues to roll out solutions under its Wärtsilä Genius banner.

But Nygård is keen to stress that “it’s not about the hardware – it’s about the service”.

“Digitalization is driven by technological developments, but its significance is in the changes made possible by these technologies. It is changing how companies create value for their customers, and these changes can be profound, going as deep as re-evaluating the nature of their business as completely new business models become available.”

However, ultimately, he says digitalization “is about change in human behaviour. It’s a cultural change that’s having a net positive effect on our lives on many levels, from our daily interactions with each other to job descriptions.

“This is much bigger than our company – it’s not just about our sector, it’s about the whole of the industry. In fact, it’s about the whole of our lives.”

Nygård says that while Wärtsilä has been delivering services in this area for some years, “now we are taking the next leap into the dawn of digitalization”.

He says the company’s offering can be divided into three: “We optimize, we predict and we solve. Optimizing fuel and performance efficiency; to be able to predict maintenance actions and costs, and looking into the future of the environment: what will happen in six months? Are there any major overhauls?”

Nygård sees the success of digitalization depending on a sharing of information: if you can gather data on a power plant from a number of sources, you can build a pattern of performance and pinpoint in advance when maintenance will be needed.

But he stresses that “if you are protective of data then digitalization will not fly”.

As an example of how digitalization can be employed on top of an already flexible system, he suggests a hybrid solar plant, running on state-of-the art gas engines, utilizing a digital system that responds to the latest weather reports and real-time changes.

“If we have a solar plant and clouds are coming or it’s getting dark, we can use part of the energy from that solar plant to heat the engine – because the engine needs to be heated if it’s standby-cold – so we could use that solar energy to heat the engine and then we can start it immediately.

“And we can optimize it so that it starts at a certain point – we know that it takes three minutes to start the engine and weather forecasts are getting better and better, so if there is a 30 per cent chance of cloud, we could pre-heat the engine so that we could start it in one minute.”

Which sounds a lot like a move towards the autonomous power plant. When does he think we will see a number of plants that are operated remotely?

“I think that it is not a technology problem – it is a responsibility thing. So it’s difficult to say who will make the decision to say ‘this is safe to do’. But technology-wise, we are there already. We have customers who are running their operations remotely and we are running power plants in very challenging areas where, more or less, the people on site are backup for security reasons, but the operations have been moved to a central location already.”

In fact, he says plants in remote areas will be a growth area for the digital power plant. “In developing countries there is often a shortage of labour, and a shortage of engineers who can be on site, so in those areas they would like to run their plant remotely.”