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New tech to help Thailand wring more efficiency out of coal power

State utility plans to retrofit old equipment with IoT sensors

The Mae Moh lignite-fired power plant, in Thailand's northern Lampang Province, will be equipped with IoT technology. (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's state power utility is adopting internet of things technology to help make the most of limited infrastructure, starting with an old thermal plant that runs on domestic coal. 

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT, will introduce internet-connected sensors at Mae Moh, a lignite-fired plant in the northern province of Lampang. Two of the plant's 10 generators will be used as test subjects. These are older generators that have been in commercial operation for more than 25 years, each producing 300,000 kilowatts.

The idea is to use cutting-edge technology to increase the aging plant's efficiency. Multiple sensors on the generators will gather a wealth of data on heat, pressure and other factors. This information will be stored in the cloud and analyzed with artificial intelligence, in order to determine optimal settings and gauge malfunction risks. After a joint feasibility study with Japanese trading house Marubeni, EGAT aims to get the system up and running by 2018 or early 2019.

Why is the utility tacking new technology onto creaky generators? A core objective is to enhance its competitiveness. "EGAT needs to compete with independent power producers, IPPs, and small power producers, SPPs, to support the government's policy to benefit the Thai people," said Saharath Boonpotipukdee, the utility's deputy governor.

The Mae Moh plant, which uses previous-generation subcritical technology, has a total capacity of 2.4 million kW. Calculating its energy input and output puts the plant's efficiency at about 35% -- below the 40%-plus of rival facilities equipped with newer ultra-supercritical technology. 

Even modest efficiency gains would put EGAT on a more competitive footing.

A more important goal, perhaps, is to make better use of locally available coal. The Mae Moh plant is fueled with lignite produced in an adjacent open-pit mine -- making it the country's only power plant fueled with domestic coal. The lignite will be "produced until around 2047," Saharath said, citing the company's current estimates.

EGAT hopes to minimize waste.

National interests

Like other state-run companies, such as PTT and Thai Airways International, EGAT plays an important role in executing national policy. The core of Thailand's energy strategy is to diversify its sources and reduce its reliance on domestic natural gas, which will be depleted sooner or later.

In its power development plan for 2015, the Ministry of Energy reported that natural gas accounted for 60% of the country's energy. If domestic gas production falls, Thailand would face pressure to import more liquefied natural gas, tilting its international balance of payments.

Despite the greater environmental challenges that come with coal, as opposed to natural gas, squeezing more energy out of Mae Moh lignite would serve national interests, from reducing LNG imports to improving energy security. This is why, from a range of options, EGAT settled on the IoT technology Marubeni proposed.

EGAT is capable of generating 16 million kW -- up to 40% of Thailand's energy needs. If the sensors bear fruit at Mae Moh, the utility intends to gradually adopt the technology at its other plants. 

"New technologies such as IoT can help us to improve the performance and productivity of our power plants," said EGAT Deputy Gov. Nikul Silasuwan.

The project could have farther-reaching implications, too. Success would show that the combination of IoT and AI can bring older facilities into the age of "smart" infrastructure. This could lead to technology transfers to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.

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