Walking into a POWERGEN International session on remote operations, monitoring and diagnostics, you don’t expect to get a short tutorial on convergent vs divergent thinking. But that’s exactly what happened for attendees of the session on Reducing Operational Costs with Remote Operations and RM&D.

Why? “What got us to where we are is not going to get us where we need to be,” said Brian Roth, vice president O&M with PROENERGY. The company is a third-party solutions provider for the energy industry.

How does this connect to remote power plant operations? Divergent thinking, which is a process used to create ideas by exploring many possible solutions, is needed to help address challenges the industry is facing now and will be facing in the future. And yet convergent thinking, which focuses on reaching a single well-defined solution to a problem, often causes us to shut down potential solutions. Roth encouraged a focus on separating convergent thinking from divergent thinking within organizations. Thinking about a challenge without taking into account constraints encourages divergent thinking.

With this encouragement setting the stage, Roth discussed the difference between remote dispatch, which is a subset of remote operations that focuses on start/stop energy monitoring, remote operations (physically controlling a unit) and remote monitoring (and diagnostics) or RM&D. The latter involves looking at data trending, setting more narrow bands to get alarms earlier than the control system and enabling plant personnel to take action.

He was frank when sharing the value of remote operations centers (ROC), including pros and cons. The pros list is substantive: better coordination and resource allocation, safety enhancements, and improved reliability and sustainability. But the cons must also be acknowledged, with Roth highlighting two in particular: technology differences make it more challenging, and the importance of communication without the ability to meet face-to-face can’t be overlooked. In addition, it is easy to overload ROC operators with information.

Roth pointed out that tools don’t solve problems. With RM&D, the aspiration is to detect small anomalies and then do something with that information before there’s a problem. RM&D can empower a utility to reach peak efficiency using predictive technology. RM&D systems can deliver prescriptive alerts to operator, which Roth called alarms with recommendations.

Now, coming back to the concept of divergent thinking: Early in the session, Roth asked attendees: “Can a single operator run 100 units?” The knee-jerk answer to that question might be no, and in that case you would be thinking convergently, not divergently. Putting aside current technology and personnel constraints, your answer should change. Roth said at this time, the company has an ROC where a single operator runs 32 units, so taking today’s constraints out of the equation could perhaps see the aspirational goal of 100 units reached.

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