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News Article

Smart Technology Revolutionizes Energy Efficiency

By Conal Quinn | Wed, 09/07/2022 - 18:48

The rise of automation, digitization and AI is set to revolutionize all aspects of our lives and the energy industry is no exception. Indeed, these smart technologies promise to improve energy efficiency while reducing operating costs for producers, say industry experts.

Diego Arjona, Board Member, Cigre Mexico, outlined a quandary faced by Canadian nuclear power plant operators. Should control systems be machine operated or controlled by humans? The former eradicates the risk of human error and offers quicker decision-making for when crucial action is required. However, are machines capable of processing information using Artificial neural networks (ANNs) like the human brain? And are they capable of carrying out the nonlinear equations required to manage complex situations?

David Hernández, Engineering Director, Energetika, said that the future lies in programming machines to behave like a human brain, which Hernández believes to be “the most complicated organism in existence.” “It has even been estimated that there are more interconnected neurons in the brain than stars in the known universe. And every single one of these synapses that take place in the brain every nanosecond is something we want to replicate as part of  Industry 4.0, where machinery will start to behave more and more like a living organism and start thinking for itself using AI algorithms,” he continued, adding that “when each piece of machinery, each factory and power station are all connected to larger systems such as the grid, that is when we can start to mimic cerebral patterns and truly talk about the energy industry behaving like an organism.”

Fidelmar Molina, Utilities Sales Manager, Hitachi Energy, said a phenomenon we will see increasingly more of on a macro level is machines being given responsibility for critical analysis and problem-solving. “In this sense, AI will play a major role in regulation. If we view digitization as a pyramid, analytics is at the bottom, serving as the foundation. Everything that involves measurements and data provides diagnostics. When going to the doctor, data is obtained and information gathered to provide a diagnosis. Where the doctor uses professional experience to provide a diagnostic, AI employs a series of algorithms to arrive at its conclusions, which results in quicker decisions devoid of human error,“ Molina said.

Alejandro Hinojosa, Energy Project Manager, Veolia, outlined how smart technologies can be used to minimize waste and reduce costs. “For Veolia and many other businesses,  looking after our resources is important. To this end, new technologies can be employed to make everything run more efficiently,” he said. According to Hinojosa, the optimal outcome is a combination of human expertise and smart technology: “We find maximum efficiency comes from merging new technologies such as AI and digitization with human knowledge. Traditional methods will continue to be valuable, but we must implement AI to better inform our personnel, helping them to make smarter decisions and obtain better results.”

As to how companies can combine software based on AI and hardware to generate optimal benefits, Hernández said that “new technology software helps collect data regarding operational activities more efficiently. More software is becoming specialized for individual activities such as energy administration and asset management. Therefore, a range of software is available. When combined with hardware or operational tools, it helps us visualize what is actually going on in a system, and this is really breaking new ground for energy efficiency.”

“At Veolia, we have pioneered Hubgrade to visualize, evaluate and optimize resource management for buildings. By combining computer analysis with human analysts, we provide practical solutions to make the energy use more efficient and cost-effective. If a piece of equipment is not using electricity efficiently or malfunctioning in some way, you will receive an alert and be able to take immediate action to address the issue,” Hinojosa said. According to the company, Hubgrade is so precise it can even identify which components are at fault. “This is where AI and digitization can provide practical, money saving solutions, producing graphics of ongoing activities to help us visualize, interpret and act on problem areas to make our consumption of energy more efficient,” he concluded

“I think this perfectly describes the relationship between hardware and software. Just as the doctor needs to have accumulated the relevant data and information before diagnosing a patient, they also need certain tools or instruments to identify what is wrong with someone, and then provide a cure,” said Molina, adding that with AI and digitization, the diagnosis or discovery comes much more quickly. Therefore, “facilitating the flow of communication between software and hardware is key.”

Molina further explained how smart technology can be incorporated into a company's operations and maintenance (O&M) solutions. “Hitachi uses the same software that goes into facial recognition technology and applies it to enhance the performance of electric routers. When CFE is tracking transmission lines, it can take images and videos of what it sees, which are sent forward for processing at a data center to ensure each piece of equipment is behaving as it should and operating efficiently. Therefore, Information Technology, Operational Technology and AI allow to reduce maintenance times in electrical networks.”

Smart technology can also be used to make predictions going forward. Arjona provided the example of renewable energy and its intermittencies. A smart grid, however, helps foresee these gaps and plan for alternative energy sources. “For solar power especially, you have an abundance of energy generated during the day and then nothing at night, so we make use of smart technology to make grids and transmission lines more dynamic and predictive.” Arjona also cited the use of smart meters, especially for appliances like central heating and air conditioning, since the weather is something that changes drastically. “It is not reinventing the wheel to say you need to turn your heating off in summer or air con in winter. Smart meters, however, track the curve in demand for heating or lighting or other services,” Arjona said. Hinjosa concurred, as he explained how smart technology minimizes the impact of intermittency through forecasts. “When the supply of renewables is interrupted, we can plan ahead and turn to natural gas or other alternatives,” he said.

Hinojosa noted how even little tweaks can produce drastic changes to a company’s bottom line. “One degree lower on your aircon is a 10-percent cost saving, for big businesses that is huge. We are lucky that energy costs are still much lower here in Mexico than in Europe or elsewhere, but reducing emissions is another reason why the efficiency provided by smart monitors is to be celebrated,” he stated.

Hernández said that smart technology also allows power producers to better manage their available resources and supply chains: “Power networks need to be in constant communication so you can have the energy you need when you need it and in the right quantities.” “For wind power, digital tools are being employed to manage the weather factor and maximize output. The biggest concern for energy producers is cost-reduction, which is why efficiency is key. Smart tools mean we can take advantage of strong winds when they are available and minimize costs when they are not,” Molina added.

Conal Quinn Conal Quinn Journalist & Industry Analyst