Organizations actively watch for opportunities to improve reliability and system efficiency, and utilities are no exception. Implementing solutions to modernize and standardize existing control systems is vital for utilities, because industries, businesses, hospitals and residences depend on their service. With numerous technology-driven solutions available in the market, identifying the right fit for powerhouses can be challenging.

Requirements analysis assists in selecting the right control systems. Evaluating the requirements is essential because they will have long-term implications on operations and performance of the facility. Utilities can use an experienced partner, especially one that is vendor- and technology-agnostic, working alongside key staff to consider several factors that are critical to achieve short- and long-term goals:

1. Pricing

A qualitative and quantitative risk assessment helps the utility understand the gaps in its existing system. This presents an opportunity for it to budget and plan for these potential upgrades. Costs vary depending on the type of solutions the utility wants to install and deploy. Although these solutions can be costly, utilities must consider them an investment that can reduce costs by increasing operational performance, maintainability and reliability.

2. Support

Having technical support, both remote and on-site, to assist in maintaining the control system is beneficial and can be crucial. This support should be available before, during and after upgrading. Control system vendors generally provide some level of support, project management, development, startup and tuning during the project as part of their offerings. Most vendors can provide support or service agreements after the installation and commissioning, either as part of the initial offering or for an additional cost.

Not having this support during a project can cause schedule delays, outage delays and/or budget overruns. Lack of support after a project can lead to serious issues that can cause lost revenue and downtime.

3. Training

Even with increasing automation, people remain involved in operating and maintaining control systems. Providing adequate and customized training on software and hardware components prepares them to operate and maintain the systems more efficiently.

These workshops and sessions can be conducted in classrooms at the vendor’s training center or the owner’s site. The training can be enhanced and tailored to the owner’s specific plant using a simulator. Though it would add cost to the project, the simulator can be an effective tool for training operators to operate the plant effectively and respond to disturbances in the system properly.

4. Functionality

Modern control systems have a variety of features that improve reliability, performance and efficiency. Upgrading the control system gives a utility better control of its powerhouses by providing enhanced control schemes, remote monitoring, equipment protection, vibration monitoring, graphical displays, advanced alarm capabilities, data collection, logs and more.

These features reduce the load on operators, allowing them to focus on other activities that require human intervention. Other solutions that enhance functionality include:

  • An asset management system (AMS) for technical asset management and prognostic maintenance, enabling optimization of assets and operations.
  • A generator excitation system for reliability, stability and fast transient responses.
  • A redundant system for switching power feeds, network communication and data links if a failure occurs, providing increased reliability.
  • A historical data management system for collecting and storing data from various sources, enabling organizations to better baseline operational data, determine trends and show relations between equipment and processes.

5. Maintainability

Time taken to perform nonroutine maintenance activities significantly impacts operations. Having a control system with redundancy of computers, processors, network communications and power feeds enables the system to function even in the event of a failure. Some controls systems processors, I/O modules and communication modules are “hot swappable,” allowing them to be removed and replaced while the system is running, without disruption.

Having a control system that is integrated reduces the need for spare parts, simplifies system use and reduces the necessary knowledge base. These solutions also can simplify troubleshooting methods and software patching, and improve diagnostic capabilities.

6. Cybersecurity

Energy dependency is growing by the day. Disruptions to distribution networks can cause severe damage to health, the environment, industries and more. Cyberattacks are a major threat to cause blackouts, which could lead to severe economic losses. Identifying the gaps in cybersecurity controls helps in building a strong system.

Most control system vendors can provide packaged cybersecurity solutions with hardware and/or software components that they developed or modified from off-the-shelf products. These cybersecurity solutions can provide real-time antivirus protection, intrusion protection, rogue system detection, patch management, system backup and recovery, and more. Depending on the plant security requirements and budgets, these solutions can be tailored by adding or removing some services.

A control system is the brain of a power plant. It monitors performance, manages loads, controls essential applications and more. Utilities are finding that upgrading the control systems can dramatically improve operations. Partnering with specialists for evaluating and upgrading the facilities can be fruitful.


Learn more about the latest control systems, the benefits associated with upgrading, and the right way to assess when upgrades are needed.

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Brandon Thorpe is an energy instrumentation and control department manager for Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in distributed control systems (DCS), control system design and power generation plants.