Know your plant!

2014-03-25 - An ABB service solution has helped Italian energy company, ERG, seize new growth opportunities by knowing precisely how well its plants are performing and why. Fabio Mezzetti, head of planning and control for ERG’s power generation business, explains how.

Please describe ERG’s business activities and your role within the company.

The ERG Group is an Italian group of companies that has been active in the energy industry for more than 70 years. It is the largest producer of wind power in Italy and the owner and operator of two thermoelectric power plants. ERG also maintains a strategic presence in oil marketing.

The two power plants are located in Sicily. One is a 532 MW integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant that generates electricity from syngas, which is obtained through the gasification of heavy residue from an adjoining refinery. The plant was commissioned in 2000, and is the largest IGCC plant in Europe and the third largest in the world. The second site is a 480 MW gas-fired combined cycle power plant that started operations in 2010. Part of its production is used to power a multicompany industrial site.

The two power plants constitute ERG’s power generation business. As the head of performance control, I am responsible for the technical and economic performance of the two plants.

In 2010 your company decided on a dramatic change of strategy. Would you describe that change and the reasons for adopting it?

At that time the refining market was shrinking, so we decided to branch out into the power sector. We saw good opportunities for growth in power generation. We had two power plants that were generating more than 8 terawatt-hours of electricity. But to be successful in the energy market we had to switch from being a captive power producer that generated electricity for the refinery and industrial site. Instead we had to become a commercial operator who generates and sells electricity in a tough and competitive market. That was a huge challenge and, as you say, a dramatic change in strategy.

How did the change in strategy affect the way you operate the plants?

To participate in the energy market it was imperative that the plants become more competitive. We had to improve efficiency and optimize the generation process at the plants as quickly as possible. The biggest challenge for a participant in the energy market is ‘to know your plant.’ By this I mean that you have to have detailed knowledge of your assets and the way they behave in the energy market in which you operate. The more information you have on your plants and their component parts – and how well or poorly they are operating – the more efficient and profitable you become. It’s not enough to know that the plant is efficient, you have to know why, by how much and in which items of equipment it is efficient as well.

You chose ABB to improve efficiency and optimize performance at the plants. Why ABB?

We had previous experience of working with ABB. They provided the distributed control system for our IGCC plant. The DCS controls the entire gasification and power generation process at the plant and has done so successfully for several years. But more importantly, we wanted a partner with the expertise and know-how to help us achieve our objectives. Whoever we chose had to have a track record in assessing and improving power plant performance, and a standardized and scalable approach to doing so. We felt that ABB was the obvious choice.

Can you briefly describe the main features of the ABB solution, how it works and what it does?

The conventional way to measure plant performance is simple and uninformative: Fuel enters the plant, power leaves the plant, and the ratio between the two is the plant’s performance. This approach provides no information at all on why the plant is performing well or badly, nor on which parts of it require improvement or maintenance. It tells you nothing about whether you are competitive or not.

With the ABB solution we now know precisely how well the plants are performing and why. The solution continuously monitors 50 primary variables in 25 key factors in each of the plants’ main components – steam turbines, generators, gas turbines, condenser and the heat recovery steam generator. By measuring the actual performance of the variables in each of the 25 key factors and comparing those readings with reference figures, we know immediately whenever a deviation is occurring. This enables us to calculate the impact of the deviation on plant performance and when best to rectify it – immediately or at a future service interval.

“The most important benefit of the ABB solution is that we know precisely what it costs to generate power each hour. This means that we can calculate accurately the price that we can sell the power for on the exchange and at what level we should submit our bids.”

What are the benefits of the ABB solution? How has it improved plant operations?

The most important benefit of the solution is that we know precisely what it costs to generate power each hour. And this means that we can calculate accurately the price that we can sell the power for on the exchange and at what level we should submit our bids.

The second benefit is that we can plan maintenance and determine when best to rectify a component variable that is showing a deviation. For instance, previously we replaced the air intake fi lters in the gas turbines three or four times a year. The ABB solution showed that this was unnecessary and that we could extend the filter life cycle by several months. This is just one example of many, but it has reduced our maintenance costs and increased productivity.

Third, we know what measures or investments are required to improve performance over the medium to long term, and we can plan when to implement them accordingly.

And fourth, we now have precise knowledge of the plants – we know that they are preforming well, and we know why they are performing well.

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[Fabio Mezzetti
Head of Planning and Control, ERG