Know your assets – help the bottom line

The key to maximising the performance of any business is the ability to make decisions based on the largest possible amount of information. But many electricity companies are throwing away valuable data resources every day. David Barr of UK company, Beaver Valley Systems, explains how to extract this information and use it to your advantage.

David Barr

Historic loads data is either being ignored or discarded by organisations who could instead be unlocking the data and distributing it to decision-makers across the company. This is a huge opportunity for any organisation attempting to maximise plant efficiency and remain competitive. So what can they do to change the situation?

As anticipated, 1998 proved to be a watershed year for the UK`s electricity industry — both on the generation and distribution side. Privatization and the deregulation of the utilities market has had profound consequences on the UK`s regional electricity companies, which are under increasing pressure to improve their internal processes and deliver added value to their customer base. And the situation is also having a major impact on the generation side where plant efficiency and asset maximization are paramount.

For the electricity suppliers gearing up to compete, this has involved huge IT expenses. All involved have invested many millions in information technology systems to prepare for the onset of full competition — an investment that in the long term could mean nothing less than survival in the competitive market.

As a result, there have also been huge investments in changes to the back-end systems and processes that are designed to improve performance and ultimately reduce costs.

The British government is now pushing for a split within the regional electricity companies (RECs) between distribution (a natural monopoly business) and supply. Some RECs may decide to get out of supply altogether because of the low profit margins and cut-throat competition post-1998, and focus on being a low cost, high productivity wires company with stable and predictable revenues.

In this scenario, asset performance is an obvious candidate when looking for ways of improving internal efficiencies and reducing costs, and many organisations have been looking at new ways of utilising assets to maximise productivity, and to increase their bottom line.

The key to maximising assets is having the ability to make decisions based on the largest possible amount of information. The smarter RECs have begun to gain a competitive advantage via a new generation of distribution automation systems which integrate data from Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems with other IT systems used by the utilities such as asset register, maintenance, geographical information (GIS), work management, fault reporting, network modelling and engineering and commercial systems. The key is integration, and the underlying backbone for this new generation of software is the concept of a data historian, giving RECs, for the first time, a complete source of real-time and historical information on the performance of their distribution assets.

Learning from within

One REC that has started down this route is Eastern Electricity. Eastern Electricity has traditionally enjoyed a reputation as one of the most innovative and forward thinking RECs in the UK. Until recently, Eastern had been collecting information about the performance of its electrical network for 25 years and storing the data on a mainframe computer. Its problem was that users were only able to view this information in a limited way, highlighting a need for more flexibility and manipulation of the data in order to maximise its value.

The requirement was for mainframe technology to make way for open client server computer systems, whilst maintaining existing data collection sources and control systems around Eastern`s distribution network. An electrical load Information management system (ELIS) was needed, which would allow Eastern to view asset performance data from desktop PCs in a way that would enable its engineers to see, at the touch of a button, how assets were being utilised.

Eastern turned to Beaver Valley Systems, a specialist provider of plant information management systems for the utilities, processing and manufacturing industries. Beaver Valley Systems showed them a data historian software package, the Plant Information (PI) System.

PI is a sophisticated software product which can store years of process data on-line. PI is designed to provide real-time and historical process data to users, helping them gain a better understanding of the operation of their plant and thereby increase throughput, maximise use of assets, improve quality and flexibility and ultimately reduce costs.

PI provided an archive for time series data such as the half-hourly data Eastern was already collecting. It is unique in the way it uses compression algorithms to store large amounts of data (Eastern has 30-40 000 values, each generating over 17 000 values per annum) at original accuracy. The data can then be recalled from the historian to desktop PCs and thus directly into spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel, which is part of Eastern`s standard software build.

Quality information

A single archive for all temporal (time series) information allows all corporate users access to the same pool of information, subject to the necessary security clearance. The use of wide area networks allows a company`s head office to view data from sites across the whole of its region. This commonality of data, combined with a wide range of processing and analysis tools, enables a user to present asset information in a meaningful way and analyse it according to specific criteria.

It can be displayed in a familiar desktop environment, integrating easily with popular PC applications such as spreadsheets and word processing packages, and used to make well-informed business decisions. It also facilitates the provision of information back to the National Grid (NGC) and the regulator, lessening the time-consuming burden of having engineers out on site for days at a time, accumulating information first hand.

Designers within Eastern`s network business are able to utilise information provided by ELIS to plan capital investment in order to maintain a reliable and secure electricity supply. They can see whether assets are being used to the optimum and are also able to monitor potential problems before they happen, by seeing when parameters such as temperature are being exceeded.

Yorkshire Electricity is another REC that is using the ELIS software application as part of its DAMS (Distribution Asset Management Systems) programme. DAMS is part of Yorkshire Electricity`s distribution division, set up to deal with the business change and information technology pro- grammes needed to enable the company to compete in the new competitive electrical distribution industry.

ELIS is used to populate the Yorkshire Electricity high voltage and low voltage network models with loads information, and it feeds data into an electrical loss calculation application. Desktop client applications under Windows 95 were developed, by the team of Yorkshire and Beaver Valley consultants, to allow users to quickly access Scada and settlements data. The ELIS Microsoft Excel spreadsheet link enables Yorkshire Electricity to carry out load forecasting far quicker and more easily than ever before. Other interfaces and applications are being developed, which will include storing customer-metering information, temperature data and a Scada data-cleansing product.

Competitive edge

In addition to the RECs, the power generation businesses are also embracing sophisticated IT systems to improve asset performances.

National Power has implemented significant changes and improvements since its privatisation in 1990, with its dual aims of becoming the `lowest cost producer` in the UK electricity industry, and a world-class private sector business. These were changes that had to be introduced quickly and effectively to differentiate National Power from its competitors in the newly formed UK power market.

The company recognised the important role that an effective information technology system would play in empowering the workforce, enhancing productivity, and supporting the change in culture and working practice.

At many power station sites, the collection and dissemination of plant performance information had previously been based on manual log sheets, chart recorders, logging systems, printed reports and stand-alone computer systems. The ability to capture vital data, quickly process it and present reliable, consistent plant performance information to a broad range of staff is vital in the effective optimization of plant operations. People need information quickly and precisely in several different areas of the business, including plant operators, engineering and maintenance staff, and business managers.

Chris Hunt, PI Project Officer, explains: “We were satisfied that the OIS was running smoothly, but wanted to start building further operational support applications to add value to our investment.”

Beaver Valley Systems has worked with National Power since 1993 and implemented an OIS Creep Life analysis application to meet National Power`s functional specification. This application is now used by staff to monitor creep life damage to boiler components subjected to high pressure and temperature. It provides the information needed to assess and manage damage to the plant and hence plant life. A total of eight power stations today successfully use this application.

Through its use of the PI system, National Power has understood the drivers of creep life stresses, and been able to try and avoid these conditions through its improved knowledge of the way the plant operates.

Chris Hunt said: “Our improved knowledge of plant information has led us into the development of a dedicated Advanced Plant Management System (APMS), and PI is an integral part of that system. It remains the cornerstone – great things have developed from the first installation of PI at National Power in 1990.”

Hunt continued: “We used to analyse the running costs of the plant monthly in arrears, by looking at hand-entered data. Now, using the real-time, online monitoring systems available through PI, we can control losses at the time they occur. PI has given us the ability to look at plant data in new ways. Years later we can look at archived data using new applications to analyse plant operations, and this knowledge is fundamental to future plant success.”

As well as improving the quality of information to control engineers, this approach provides the network strategists with the facility to investigate power consumption patterns, outages and customer histories, and to ensure that increased investment in substation and network reinforcement is spent wisely. Knowledge of consumption patterns allows spare capacity to be sold, and tariffs used to change customer consumption patterns as required.

As both RECs and generation companies get to grips with this new era of distribution information management software, we can expect to see competition increase even further as they harness their new found knowledge. By recording and harnessing the information at their fingertips, these organisations will be able to develop innovative ways of exploiting network assets in order to differentiate their products and services and elevate themselves above the competition.