Behind the case study: Akselos discusses its digital twin solution for monitoring the condition of a critical pumped storage station in Ireland
In 2019, Irish electricity company ESB was seeking a solution to help them understand the structural health of its 47-year-old Turlough Hill pumped storage station, which generates up to 292MW into the Irish grid during peak demand periods and – as Ireland’s only pumped storage station – has a crucial role in the country’s ongoing transition to renewable energy grid stabilisation.
It was difficult to assess the asset’s condition because much of the station is buried into a mountain and inaccessible for inspection, and minimal analogue data was available to digitise the asset and build a 3D view of the structure. The solution was to create a structural model, or digital twin, of the entire asset. The physics-based model is a complete replica, absolutely detailed and accurate. It allows ESB to carry out structural assessments based on near-real time condition. Now that the digital twin is deployed, the next stage is to connect the digital twin and real-life asset via sensors, to create a digital guardian that will give a constant, real-time picture of Turlough Hill’s structural condition.
This project is one of the infrastructure technology (InfraTech) projects featured in the GI Hub InfraTech case study library. The full case study for the Turlough Hill digital twin solution was developed in partnership with the World Economic Forum and Akselos.
Akselos was contracted by ESB to create the digital twin and is now creating the digital guardian. Thomas Leurent, CEO at Akselos, joins the GI Hub blog today to share more about the technology used on the project.
Q: Digital twins have been described as a key technology reshaping the infrastructure industry. What role did the digital twin play in defining the future of the Turlough Hill station?
In the case of Turlough Hill – an existing hydro station operating beyond its original conceived working life, where much of the penstock and manifold is not inspectable – the challenge was to understand the state of the asset and profile the operational risks while providing an understanding of what the future would be for the plant operations.
The key questions being answered by Akselos’ digital twin simulations for this station were:
- After decades of operation, is the plant safe to operate?
- What are the explanations of the observed cracks and defaults detected in earlier inspections?
- What is the likely accumulated material fatigue of the system and what risks have built up?
- How long can ESB expect to consider the station’s operation in the future?
- What is the impact of increased cycles of operation to support higher grid stabilisation demand?
- Will there be higher variability in electricity supply due to the phase-out of traditional fossil fuel-based generation capacity and the transition to renewable sources in the grid?
- What regime of operation would be the optimal economic scenario?
- What will be the state of the asset in 2, 5, and 10 years from now?
- What areas need to be inspected and on what frequency?
- How can structural integrity risks to the water distribution system be mitigated?
Q: Akselos creates simulations of large and complex assets to optimise engineering processes, asset integrity and sustainability through the lifecycle. Can you give us a brief overview of the benefits of these solutions at each stage?
Yes, Akselos’ new technology enables a holistic digital twin that supports lifecycle management from early engineering concept through design, commissioning, operations, and into late stage / life extension and eventual decommissioning.
Beginning with design – design of large structures today typically considers a limited number of options simply due to the computational cost and duration required for detailed, 3D, physics-based design work. Akselos allows for high-speed computation of many different scenarios in a short time, allowing a wider range of design options to be evaluated, to improve economic and environmental outcomes while reducing risk on the chosen final design.
Our technology also helps enable material reduction, for example by enabling reduced steel volumes and supporting value engineering with high levels of confidence for structural compliance. Whereas traditional approaches often lead to over-design or offer fewer alternatives for project developers, the technology supports more fit-for-purpose, lean designs. The improved design processes contribute to a safer, better understood project with lower CAPEX and a smaller overall carbon footprint.
There are various advantages in commissioning. In the case of hydroelectric projects, for example, we are able to simulate different cycles of exploitation of the plant.
Once in operation, we have technology solutions that provide transparent remote monitoring and virtual inspection, and support risk-based inspection methodologies that contribute to safer and lower cost operations. These extend to support late-stage and ultimate decommissioning considerations.
Q: Digital simulations have the ability to reduce both capex and opex. In the case of Turlough Hill, the digital twin avoided potential structural work programs that typically cost EUR10-100 million. Inspection scopes were reduced by 30-40% at a savings of EUR100,000-200,000 per inspection. How well are the economic opportunities created by this technology quantified and understood, within the industry at large?
The greatest challenge faced by asset managers today is to get realistic and valid business cases to drive remedial work on aging assets. This is an industry-wide problem. We believe that by working closely with the operator, and using value-based methodologies, we can help develop sound economics to support structural digital twin deployments. We recognise that there is as much work to be done in proving the economic case as there is in proving new technologies and innovation.
Q: This project was part of the Free Electrons accelerator program, of which ESB is a founding member. Can you tell us a bit about the program and the opportunities it enabled for Akselos?
The free electrons program is a well-structured innovation acceleration program put in place for utility companies that are looking for technology to contribute solutions to the current energy transition while adding new revenue models to this industrial sector.
For Akselos it was an opportunity to extend our technology usage into the utility sector, where we have booked a number of additional customers since.
Q: More generally, from your perspective as CEO of a technology-based company, how do you see programs like the Free Electrons Accelerator Program helping accelerate technological innovation and the adoption of InfraTech?
Those programs are key for either new companies looking for their first customers, or scale-up companies looking to enter a new vertical. Free Electrons had a strong focus on tangible collaboration results, which is great.
Q: What are the next major hurdles you’d like to see overcome, when it comes to leveraging the benefits and value of InfraTech?
Infrastructure 4.0 can unlock tremendous speed and value. An area where this is most needed is the energy transition. To capture strong IR4.0 gain and reach the energy transition tipping point, we must:
- Align industry digitalisation, in particular operators and service companies. We must have the conversation on what is in it for EPCs (for example higher margin, recurring revenue, but potentially lower turnover).
- Make sure data sharing is turned on. “Data is the new oil” only works when data is un-siloed. That’s when the compounding effects kick in. And this is compatible with IP Protection; sharing and cyber security are two different problems.
- Use InfraTech to simulate new asset types and jump straight to multi-GW scale, e.g. with floating offshore wind, or even floating solar. We do not have the luxury of time and must hit large-scale deployment right after the initial demonstrations of viability. Infrastructure 4.0 can help there.