The Fourth Industrial Revolution, IR4.0, brought with it a framework for implementing advanced technologies, which triggered the commencement of many Digital Transformation projects to comply with IR4.0 guidelines. The Energy Sector, being one of the most complex, advanced, and essential sectors, pioneered in adopting IR4.0, driven by the huge benefits from such technologies within this sector. This article discusses benefits, performance impact, success factors, and important areas of application of these technologies in the Energy Sector.
The discovery of fossil fuel and electricity, more than a century ago, marked the beginning of the energy sector, which was developed and expanded exponentially in all areas, e.g., oil, gas, petrochemicals, power, renewable energy, etc., because of availability of cheap fuel. This sector has contributed and became the driver for the development of industries, agriculture, transportation, and even technology, in a huge way, which in turn played a significant role in the development of humanity and led to exponential population growth in the past century or so. Modern technology started with the invention of the transistor, followed by building the first computer more than seventy years ago. Later integrated circuits and microprocessors were invented, triggering and supporting the development of the internet, digital control, modern telecom systems, and mobility in the ’80s and ’90s, reaching its ultimatum today with the commencement of the fourth industrial revolution, IR4.0.
It is worth noting that the technology sector and energy sectors have a mutually reflexive relationship, as they are mutually impacting each other and helping each other’s development and growth.
Fourth Industrial Revolution IR4.0
The revolution in hardware and software in the past few decades was important for IR4.0 after the Internet revolution. IR4.0, being the latest technology framework, has led to what is called today “Digital Transformation”, benefiting from its advanced technology pillars, such as AI, Cloud Computing, and Big Data. This technology is reshaping the world, including all industrial sectors, our social system, and every other aspect of our life. IR4.0 is built on several technologies, integrated, interacting, and working together to meet business requirements, such as; Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, Cloud Computing, mobility, and social networks. It will make everything we do smarter, connected all the time, and more effective. This technology has applications in every sector and industry, right from energy to health, finance, education, manufacturing, transportation, and others. Each of them will enjoy huge benefits from Applying respective technology such as AI, Robotics, IoT, Big Data, and mobility.
Energy Sector & Digitalization
Today, the Energy Sector, though highly advanced in technology, compared to other sectors, is still facing several challenges, e.g., losses, waste, high consumption of energy, pollutions, manual tasks, safety hazard, high emissions, such as CO2 and unoptimized operations. Also, new sources of energy, such as solar and wind, need modern automation systems for optimizing their operations and maintenance. New technologies, such as Production Planning & Optimizations, AI, and Big data, can be used to enhance profitability, while Advanced Process Control (APC) can optimize plant operations and plant operability. Mass and energy balance systems help to identify and reduce losses while energy optimization applications reduce energy consumption. Technology can also be used to enhance the design and operations of carbon capture systems. Also, technology such as modern control systems, AI, and others can reduce car emissions and other transportation means. Smart sensory is vital in process operations, drilling, production, and oil and gas wells management and control. Supply chain is key in the energy sector, especially in the chemicals sector. IR4.0 technologies such as optimization, production planning, logistics management, and others can be used to improve complex supply chain systems. In the power sector, smart grid solutions, besides robotics, modern control systems, and smart meters, using AI and mobility, are essential to improve the performance of this sector. Robotics, being one of the important offerings in IR4.0, has evolved in the past decade and became affordable and powerful, it also has many applications in this sector, such as doing site tours, safety tours, automate product loading, and many more.
To judge energy sector performance, it is mandatory to establish a robust performance management system based on relevant KPIs, reflecting important business indices, such as those related to efficiency, consumption of raw material, availability of plants, safety indices, and so on. KPIs are linked to business objectives and mission, defined for all levels in the organization, right from HQ and executive level down to working and operations level. Those KPIs are usually presented compared to a set of targets and/or international benchmarks, to judge the business performance, identify gaps, and plan corrective actions. In the Energy Sector, it is also essential, especially in oil & gas, to report losses, profitability, operations costs, and growth, besides safety indices, such as the number of incidents, Lost Time Injuries, and others. In such projects and before they start, a baseline performance is established using direct business and operations data, statistical and aggregated data, which shall be compared at the end to post-implementation data to see and evaluate improvements in different areas after normalizing other influencing factors.
Digitalization projects (based on IR4.0) in the energy sector, are characterized by several criteria, such as:
1. Highly integrated
2. Involves most IR4.0 technologies
3. Cyber security is critical for such systems and vital industry
4. Needs specialized resources to implement and support
5. Real-time data and systems are key within their solution
Technology projects in the energy sector call for the right approach to succeed, which should be based on the following factors;
1. Proper planning and execution approach
2. Right team and providers
3. Phased approach
4. Adequate infrastructure systems
5. Use proven technology
Most Digitalization projects in the energy sector build on existing IT and Automation systems which exist at almost every site and company. Part of these existing systems are essential infrastructure for Digitalization, such as WAN/LAN, telecom, control systems, field devices, and others, which are all important prerequisites to start Digitalization projects.
Renewable Energy & Technology
Renewable energy, though forms an important part of the overall energy sector, has specific technology requirements, such as using robots to clean solar panels, proper control of solar panels and wind turbines, besides software systems used for weather forecast, to identify and deal with its impact on renewable energy systems’ performance. It is foreseen that new technologies can also be used for improving emission measurement, using AI without physical measuring devices (Soft Analyzers), to monitor and mitigate emissions at both public sites and as well industrial sites.
Emissions and Pollutions
Emissions and pollutions are amongst the toughest challenges for the energy sector in the coming few decades, as these are the main contributors to global warming unless pollution and emissions, especially carbon dioxide, is mitigated and reduced substantially. Respective systems, such as emission monitoring, carbon capture, and other related systems, all need technology to perform well, right from smart sensory, throughout; AI, big data, simulation systems, and control.
Impact on Operability
Technology plays a major role in improving the operability of energy plants, such as oil refineries, gas plants, power plants, and others. Modern control systems, smart sensory, AI used in diagnosis besides advanced control systems are all important technologies in these plants to improve operability. Robotics can also play an important role in site operations tours, besides executing simple field operations tasks.
Collaboration and management views
Modern Digital systems are equipped with collaborative SW applications, running at plant and field level and as well at HQ, to ensure ease of access to information and data at all levels. Furthermore, it supports the necessary collaboration environment for different organizational functions and departments to exchange instructions, data, information and execute joint tasks. Similarly, these systems provide easy-to-use management views at desk computers, iPads, and mobiles, for executives and management staff, presenting respective KPIs, essential alerts, data, and business reports in a graphical, real-time, and instant way.
Both technology and the energy sector are evolving and changing fast, hence we need to make sure we select the right and latest technology for each industry and application, choosing proven and cost-effective ones suitable for our needs. In the coming few decades, the energy sector will rely more on renewable energy, nuclear energy and less on fossil fuels. The chemicals sector is expected to shrink in few decades, due to less availability of oil & gas. Similarly, technology will evolve into more AI smarter solutions, advanced big data analytics, more mobility, advanced robotics, and less manual work and manned plants. Many of the current organizational functions will disappear in the energy sector.
The main cost elements in these solutions and projects are related to basic infrastructure, such as LAN/WAN, telecom systems, basic control systems, and field sensors. Advanced application form less than 25% of the total project cost. On the other hand, the benefits of these technologies come mostly from production planning and optimization, advanced control, supply chain management, and energy optimization. Most of these projects, excluding infrastructure costs, have a pay-back period of less than four years.
IR4.0 and Digitalization are becoming mandatory requirements in the energy sector to improve its performance and competitiveness at both plant level and HQ. The post-implementation cost-benefit analysis of such projects proved that these systems are highly feasible and should be done without delay.