Aboitiz Power draws on ‘data analytics’ for performance improvements

Published May 18, 2021, 1:02 PM

by Myrna M. Velasco

Every summer, perhaps no topic is more controversial than when electricity supply in the country teeters at breaking point – and with cacophony of reasons, consumers get agitated with probabilities of brownouts or spikes in their electric bills.

From that industry’s recurrent shoddy cycle, Aboitiz Power Corporation bifurcates business decision –not just by simply muting the noise but by factoring in market signals for it to take the upper edge on its operational performance – and with that, it is bringing into play data science and artificial intelligence (DSAI) as the company takes a wider swing on its corporate game plans and innovations.

Photo shows the Hedcor Regional Control Center in Mindanao, which is part of the overall digitalization journey of Aboitiz Power Corporation.

Via its newly launched business unit – the Aboitiz Data Innovation or ADI, the conglomerate is consolidating its strategy on how it can use data science and artificial intelligence, not just in making headway for operational outcomes but also in discovering and re-fashioning business models that can generate greater value across the chain of its businesses and operations.

In the power sector, in particular, the company is in that complex search on how it can use data analytics to reduce downtimes – specifically forced outages – on its power plants; and has likewise been drawing on digitalization platforms to introduce new services and suite of solutions to customers.

As the conglomerate explained, “ADI will consolidate the DSAI operating model across the group and promote a data-driven culture across the organization,” specifying that the key responsibility of that new business unit “is to transform data into business outcomes, exploit information to make better decisions, reinvent business models and develop high-value solutions to create new processes, products and services.”

Aboitiz Equity Ventures President and CEO Sabin M. Aboitiz forthrightly stated that “embracing data science and AI opens us to new and bigger opportunities to accelerate productivity, drive business value and generate new revenue streams.”

Aboitiz Equity Ventures President and CEO Sabin M. Aboitiz

But to achieve targets, he acknowledged the need to enhance and re-calibrate the skill set of core teams in their organization. “We’re not looking at competing with others to be able to get these solutions…it’s about learning, consolidating, collaborating and finding the solutions that we need for our country. So what is important is that: we need to be very agile, because as you know, change things so fast, so we need to be very agile with the knowledge and the new type of team members that we need.”

Making algorithms sexy

DSAI experts would always say that “data is boring” unless it is interpreted in such a way that it becomes an understandable ‘gut issue’ to an ordinary consumer or user – hence, that is the biggest challenge when it comes to unlocking algorithms or in employing data analytics so the operational processes of electric generating facilities could improve in the process.

The data being collated throughout the cycle of operations of power facilities can be analyzed and be used in managing business solutions, because that could tell you if a power facility will already be in need of repairs or overhaul; what system enhancements are necessary to boost capacity availability; and it can also aid business owners in reducing their costs as well as in delineating which areas of operations could help in generating savings for the organization.

Nowadays, one key innovation that power plant owners and operators can latch on to is: the “digital twin” of electric generating facilities or having a computer-interfaced replica of a power plant that for some – it can fit in a suitcase that you can bring with you while eating breakfast; relaxing on a beach; on a plane travel; or having that one digital tool that you can check on before you go to sleep – just to ensure that consumers will not suffer from electricity service disruptions while they slumber for that much needed rest.

Emmanuel V. Rubio, president and CEO of Aboitiz Power, said “we have embarked on predictive analytics and digital twin in 2019,” and this was piloted at the company’s 300-megawatt Therma South Inc. (TSI) coal-fired power plant in Davao.

Aboitiz Power President and CEO Emmanuel V. Rubio (Photo credit: https://aboitizpower.com)

He indicated the company is utilizing the GE Predix platform as a digital twin technology in that power facility; and the next step for Aboitiz Power is to scale that at its 340-MW Therma Visayas Inc. (TVI) plant in Cebu; then all through the other 46 power facilities in the group’s portfolio.

“We are in discussions with GE to implement the same system in TVI, as well as other service providers of predictive analytics,” Rubio stressed; adding that its GNPower Dinginin plant in Mariveles, Bataan will also be having that similar digital twin technology amplification.

“The data that we are collecting are already currently being used but it’s just the beginning,” the Aboitiz Power chief executive enthused.

With predictive analytics, Aboitiz Power pointed out that it could sift through volumes of data by employing predictive modeling or machine learning (with the use of sensors) that could then analyze historical as well as current facts and events – including diagnosis of early warning signs of equipment failure – so it can sort out fit-to-purpose solutions in power plant operations.

AI-enabled power systems of the future

According to Jaime Jose Y. Aboitiz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Aboitiz Power, “at the core of our strategy is the digitalization of our assets, which is the heart of our operations.”

He emphasized that “being the biggest generation company, we have a responsibility to ensure our plants’ availability and operating efficiency,” with him noting further that “we do this by constantly adopting the latest technologies to deliver maximum value.”

One digitalization imprint that the company has been trailblazing on is: consolidating the operations of the hydropower generating units of its subsidiary Hedcor Inc. — so all the power plants in that business unit can be operated remotely in just a single control room – and that is now via the “Regional Control Center” in Mindanao. And upon the completion of the firm’s multi-year digitalization journey in 2024, that will eventually be transformed into a “National Operations Control Center” that will link all of Hedcor’s power plant operations across Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao grids.

Jaime Jose Y. Aboitiz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Aboitiz Power (Photo credit: https://www.aboitizconstructioninc.com/about/management/)

“We employ a holistic approach to our digitalization strategy. This is an effort to future-proof the organization and our operations, to create a strong digital dexterity and culture among our people, and to provide our customers with unique and value-adding offerings in this digital day and age,” Aboitiz asserted.

Additionally – and specifically for Aboitiz Power’s TVI thermal plant in Cebu, the company executive stipulated that they already installed operational technology (OT) cybersecurity systems “to ensure we have world class security in our power plants” – and that was completed last year at TVI.

“The OT cybersecurity project was initiated at TVI to gain clearer visibility through the OT security monitoring technology from Claroty,” Aboitiz said, highlighting that the system offers visibility in three variables of risks: the OT, IT (information technology) and IIoT (industrial internet of things) assets, connections and processes.”

Aboitiz further explained having such OT cybersecurity in a power facility will bring benefits to the plant operator or owner through: inventory and visibility of all OT assets connected in Claroty CTD (continuous threat detection) which then spots potential threats; detection of any malicious behaviors and threat/risk identification through alerts for plant operators to quickly prioritize remediation and mitigation efforts; and it can also be used for ‘vulnerability management’, wherein the system platform correlates information against the latest CVE (common vulnerabilities and exposures) data and extensive Claroty-tracked database of insecure protocols and other security weaknesses.

On the group’s power distribution segment, one digitalization odyssey that Aboitiz Power has been setting in motion is the rollout of smart meters – primarily advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which is an innovative metering system that can help consumers organize their electricity usage because this gives them user-friendly or more digestible information on their power consumption behavior, hence, empowering them to prudently manage their monthly electric bills.

But there’s a downside, Aboitiz noted, because the price of AMI smart meters is still regarded prohibitive – especially to marginalized consumers, hence, it cannot be done yet on a ‘big bang approach’ or on massive commercial rollout, specifically so as solid regulatory support is not there yet to underpin such kind of innovations in the country’s all-inclusive smart grid program.

The company reckoned it is still at pilot stage on its AMI meters’ deployment – pioneering it with 10 smart meter installations at its Visayan Electric Company (VECO) subsidiary in Cebu; and on the medium- to longer term, the target is to roll out 5,000 smart meters not just in VECO but will also be expanded to its Cotabato Light and Power Company in Mindanao.

“It is true that the cost of smart meters is still higher compared to regular or traditional meters, but the benefit really is that: consumers are able to manage their energy consumption better and outweigh the expected incremental increase in electricity rate,” Aboitiz expounded.

As a transition strategy, Aboitiz conveyed that VECO “has been installing elevated meter clusters (EMCs) using electronic meters – or the hawkeye meters – that have the features of a smart meter,” emphasizing that this technology deployment “has been helping distribution utilities (DUs) control electricity pilferage.”

He added that VECO already installed 10,000 hawkeye meters since 2014, and “these meters are also connected to the AMI headend system and can be treated similar to other smart meters once allowed by the ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission).” On the billing front, the company similarly flourished on its digital initiative via its “mobileAP” app, which sets a more convenient payment system to its customers.

Beyond the opportunities and innovations where the Aboitiz group has already been breaking new grounds, company executives noted that there are still challenges – and perhaps surprises along the way — that have to be overcome.

All things considered, there are still nagging questions billowing, like: could the power plants of the future be manned by AI-enabled robots? And will there be human displacements in the energy sector’s workplace?

And these questions seem to be keeping power plant operators awake at night. Yet for the Aboitiz Power executives, they reiterated that they are now calculatedly planting the seeds that will sustain the group through its digitalization’s les rites des passage (rites of passage) – and its starting points are: upskilling its employees as well as building and promoting ‘strong digital culture’ in the organization.