A recent study has found that digitizing and automating infrastructure may save up to 230 million metric tons of global carbon emissions each year by reducing reliance on power plants that run only when demand is at its highest.
The study, done by Rho Impact, specifically examines the use of robotic inspections and decision-making software to monitor boiler tubes, commonly used in natural gas and coal plants to produce power. The study found that robotic inspections could lead to an average of 32% lower emissions per unit of electricity generated by avoiding reliance on backup power from so-called peaker plants, which are facilities that generally only run when there is the highest demand.
According to Rho Impact, as infrastructure ages and outages threaten power plants’ ability to produce energy, boiler tube failure leads to increased emissions as backup generation has to be implemented. Peaker plants are commonly used as backup energy or when electricity is in especially high demand, and they are known for high-cost, high-emissions power generation.
Peaker Plants Are Older and Less Efficient
“When natural gas or coal power plants experience a forced outage, they often switch to ‘peaker plants’ for backup generation that use a variety of methods to burn oil or gas to meet market demand,” said the study. “Peaker plants often have higher greenhouse gas intensities than even coal combustion, because they sacrifice energy efficiency for reliability and rapid spin-up. Additionally, peaker plants are often older and/or not as well maintained as main plants.”
Boiler tubes are typically difficult to inspect because of their location, and current methods rely on visual inspection and manual data collection.
Robotic inspections, though, may proactively identify failure-prone equipment, helping eliminate boiler tube failures. Rho Impact examined the effectiveness of Gecko Robotics‘ inspections, which include millions of measurements across the equipment, so power plant operators may base decisions on quality, high-density data. Decision-making software may then indicate where plant engineers should make maintenance repairs based on collected data.
Overall, these improvements would lead to lower reliance on peaker plants, or eventually eliminate the need for them altogether, according to the study.
The Study Reflects the Need to Phase Out Reliance on Peaker Plants
Peaker plants are estimated to cause about 60 million tons of emissions each year and are dangerous to surrounding communities’ health. Large-scale natural gas and coal power plants currently provide the majority of global electricity generation, or about 60%, so lowering their reliance on peaker plants by avoiding outages would likely render massive impacts. The study estimates that 24.3% of natural gas-forced outages and 3.9% of coal plant-forced outages could be avoided by implementing robotic inspection and preventative maintenance at present.
This study reflects recommendations from other sources on the need to phase out dependence on peaker plants. A recent Deloitte report recommended repurposing natural gas peaker plants into renewable energy storage in order to improve grid resilience without causing emissions. Clean Energy Group is also currently working to completely phase out peaker plants, replacing them with clean energy alternatives.