A power plant that will run on “artificial intelligence” is about to get underway in West Africa. The joint venture between Swiss-based Xcell Security House and Finance and U.S.-based Beyond Limits will embed intelligence and awareness into the operations — something that will create more efficiencies, greater productivity, and increased environmental protections.
When ordinary people hear about artificial intelligence — AI for short — they immediately think about how machines will replace humans. But as the experts explained to this reporter, AI is meant to eliminate “mundane activities” so that those running heavy industrial operations can solve problems and improve performance, which translates into healthier bottom lines.
“Nothing we build is designed to replace a person,” says Michael Krause, senior manager for oil and gas at Beyond Limits. “People need to make decisions. But AI can remove that mundane component of their work and allow managers to focus on the value-added part.”
Krause likens the exercise to a chess match: There are millions of potential strategies for humans to pursue — each one a function of intelligence and experience. But AI will provide the context so that better decisions are made. In other words, the machines will play millions of games and memorize all potential patterns — something that people cannot do. An algorithm is created that incorporates the data and that is updated in real-time.
In the case of Xcell, humans can make adjustments to improve efficiencies. But they have limits. AI, by contrast, can monitor an entire system and account for all variables. As for power plants, the technology can help managers balance supply and demand issues, maintain their plants, and improve safety measures. When AI’s algorithms are combined with cloud computing and high-speed 5G networks, the true potential is realized: companies will a have holistic view that leverages the data, giving them a competitive advantage.
According to McKinsey & Company, AI and digitization can increase asset productivity by up to 20% while also reducing maintenance costs by 10%. And IDC, a market intelligence business, says that spending on such technologies will more than double from $50 billion today to $110 billion in 2024.
“One of the keys to power operations is handling variations in supply and demand,” says Lynnwood Farr, chief executive of Xcell. “We feel that (AI) will give us the upper hand to control costs and maintain efficient, dependable power generation for our customers.”
The same AI tools can predict weather patterns. That will allow grid operators to more accurately gauge when wind and solar resources will be available for use. Reliability is therefore bolstered.
To give AI a practical context, we can focus on the need to reduce CO2 emissions and specifically, President Biden’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by mid-century. According to Beyond Limits’ Krause, AI can reduce CO2 emissions between 1%-10% by improving industrial processes and reducing downtime. No, AI does not take the carbon out of fossil fuels. But AI can, for example, help power plants or oil companies decide where to bury the CO2 — a way to offset future emissions until renewable energy might replace those fuels.
Engineers, for example, are also building three-dimensional models that allow them to test where to locate oil and gas wells. Most of that time is spent gathering data from various silos — a repetitive exercise that is time-consuming and that requires a lot of manual labor. AI allows those engineers to gather and upload that data before they receive intelligence on where to place those wells. And that has endless possibilities, which can improve drilling performance and limit environmental costs.
Beyond Limits and NVIDIA are using AI to identify the best locations for their wells — a process that they say will improve the net present value of those assets by 10%. How? The timeline to place a well is reduced from months to hours, netting a company millions of dollars and thereby creating a quicker return on investment.
The companies say that the same actions can be used when it comes to storing CO2 underground. That is, the technology can single out the best CO2 injection points across depleted fields. “We can identify the best place to put a well and to inject CO2 underground, says Krause. “AI can’t make that decision for them. But it can provide the context they need to make those decisions for themselves.”
Artificial intelligence is not about robots doing the jobs of humans. It is about taking a holistic view of the company and gathering data to improve productivity, limit expenses, and reduce environmental costs — a process that is now possible because of bandwidth capacity and cloud technologies. AI can develop algorithms and thus eliminate repetitive tasks, allowing managers to add value: organizations that are increasing productivity while minimizing costs will be globally competitive and capable of hiring more workers.