Exelon is one of the world’s largest energy companies, with operations across much of North America[i]; it is the third largest utility company in the US by number of customers[ii]. About 55% of Exelon’s power generation facilities are nuclear power plants, rendering it the largest operator of nuclear energy facilities in the United States[iii]. The sheer volume of complex and expensive infrastructure owned and operated by Exelon would seem to make digitization of such an entity a daunting challenge. This is especially true as much of the infrastructure is aging- for example, the oldest nuclear plant operated by Exelon was licensed in 1969[iv]. And yet, Exelon has become a leader in bringing its business into the digital age. How have they done this?
Exelon has established a team whose mandate is to explore new ways of applying emerging digitization technologies to their business[v] and is actively exploring a number of major focus areas. We can explore several of these in turn.
Enabling Workers Through Digitization
Exelon has embarked on plans to digitize operations within its nuclear plants in the hopes of boosting their operating efficiency. They have replaced paper operating procedures with “Electronic Work Packages”[vi], or eWPs, enabling rapid dissemination and updates of critical instructions, and correction of errors in work documentation. Workers can use any computer or tablet at any Exelon location to get the eWPs, and can also send imagery and video back to engineers using the same devices[vii].
Digitization at Exelon has not been limited to its reactors; at the company’s natural gas plants, it created a suite of mobile apps and distributed tablets to its workers in the plants to send and receive data in a similar fashion to the eWPs [viii]. They have also developed their IT security to a point where workers can bring in any internet-enabled device- mobile, tablet or otherwise- and securely access the Exelon network and apps within Exelon facilities[ix], a capability they refer to as “bring-your-own-device (BYOD)”[x].
Analytics/ Internet of Things (IoT)
Exelon has also applied data analytics to the challenge of making its nuclear plants operate more efficiently. It has started test programs in five nuclear facilities for using “big data” in an attempt at predictive maintenance- taking components offline for maintenance or replacement before they actually fail in service[xi]. Partnering with GE to analyze the data, they have managed to use this initiative to reduce unnecessary losses in power generation capacity by 10%[xii]. Exelon has also announced plans to invest $25 billion in “smart grid” technologies[xiii], which use internet-enabled, two-way communication power meters to detect faults and efficiently allocate power across its network[xiv].
A subsidiary of Exelon, Commonwealth Edison, has been licensed by the FAA to use drones to check for damage to electrical transmission equipment after storms; Exelon is also studying the use of drones in a security role to patrol the perimeters of its nuclear plants [xv]. The company has used robots in a test role at its LaSalle nuclear plant to clean highly radioactive parts of the facility and reduce required worker exposure to radiological hazards[xvi].
What more could Exelon do in this space? Exelon has discussed a focus on additive manufacturing but appears to have taken minimal steps in this direction to date; I think a program of 3-D printing in-house replacement parts, in metal[xvii], would help dramatically to reduce further required maintenance lead times and feed into their attempt to better conduct predictive maintenance.
Their robotics program is promising but has only been used experimentally; I would scale this program up more rapidly and perhaps integrate it with their BYOD/app ecosystem, so that workers could, for example, use their phones or even smartwatches to control robots in the process of inspecting or maintaining their plants.
Another future area of technology that would be fruitful for Exelon to explore is the use of virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) for training workers in maintenance or operating robots actually performing that maintenance. Use of devices like the Oculus Rift[xviii] or Microsoft HoloLens[xix] could enable Exelon workers to, for example, allow workers to perform maintenance tasks while seeing the instruction manual, schematics, or videos of the work being done overlaid on the actual parts being worked on[xx].
Exelon has set an example for the industry of how to efficiently digitize an operation that relies in large part on equipment designed and built in an era when mainframes represented the state of the art. Exelon has recognized the enormous benefits to its business model of going digital; expect to see it continue to invest heavily in digitization of its operations going forward.
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Header image credit: NRC. Retrieved from < http://powernewswire.com/stories/510703471-limerick-nuclear-plant-s-unit-1-offline-for-scheduled-refueling-outage>
[i] “About Exelon: America’s Leading Energy Provider”. Exelon. <http://www.exeloncorp.com/company/about-exelon> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[ii] Warmoth, Brian. “The 10 biggest U.S. electric utilities visualized”. Utility Dive. 22 August 2012. <http://www.utilitydive.com/news/10-biggest-utilities-us/49322/> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[iii] “The top 10 biggest power companies of 2014”. power-technology. 2 October 2014. <http://www.power-technology.com/features/featurethe-top-10-biggest-power-companies-of-2014-4385942/> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[iv] “R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant”. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. <http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactors/ginn.html> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[v] “Exelon CIIO Creates Structure, Culture For Innovation”. Deloitte CIO Journal. 31 March 2016. <http://deloitte.wsj.com/cio/2015/03/31/exelon-ciio-creates-structure-culture-for-tech-led-innovation/> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[vi] “Exelon Employees Win Top Nuclear Industry Innovation Award”. Nuclear Energy Institute. 14 May 2015. <http://www.nei.org/News-Media/Media-Room/News-Releases/Exelon-Employees-Win-Top-Nuclear-Industry-Innovati> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[vii] “Exelon Employees Win Top Nuclear Industry Innovation Award”. Nuclear Energy Institute. 14 May 2015. <http://www.nei.org/News-Media/Media-Room/News-Releases/Exelon-Employees-Win-Top-Nuclear-Industry-Innovati> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[viii] “Exelon CIIO Creates Structure, Culture For Innovation”. Deloitte CIO Journal. 31 March 2016. <http://deloitte.wsj.com/cio/2015/03/31/exelon-ciio-creates-structure-culture-for-tech-led-innovation/> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[ix] “Exelon CIIO Creates Structure, Culture For Innovation”. Deloitte CIO Journal. 31 March 2016. <http://deloitte.wsj.com/cio/2015/03/31/exelon-ciio-creates-structure-culture-for-tech-led-innovation/> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[x] “Exelon CIIO On Leading Both IT and Innovation”. Deloitte CIO Journal. 30 March 2016. <http://deloitte.wsj.com/cio/2015/03/30/exelon-ciio-on-leading-both-it-and-innovation/> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[xi] Reitenbach, Gail. “Big Data and Industrial Internet Meet the Power Plant”. Power. 1 January 2016. <http://www.powermag.com/big-data-industrial-internet-meet-power-plant/?pagenum=6> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xii] Reitenbach, Gail. “Big Data and Industrial Internet Meet the Power Plant”. Power. 1 January 2016. <http://www.powermag.com/big-data-industrial-internet-meet-power-plant/?pagenum=6> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xiii] “Exelon Utilities budgets US$25bn for smart grid tech”. Metering and Smart Energy International. 17 June 2016. <https://www.metering.com/news/exelon-us25bn-smart-grid-investment/> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xiv] “Smart Grid”. DOE Office of Electricity Delivery & Electricity Reliability. <http://energy.gov/oe/services/technology-development/smart-grid> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xv] Sobczak, Blake. “Drone rules pose risks and rewards for nuclear power plants”. E&E Publishing EnergyWire. 30 April 2015. <http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060017725> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[xvi] Cato, Daren, and Joan Knight. “Use of Robotics for Dose Reduction and Efficiency Gains at US Commercial Nuclear Facilities”. Duke Energy, Exelon, National Institute of Standards and Technology. 25 August 2016. <https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/08/25/Session3_Presentation6_Cato_Knight_Use-of-Robotics-for-Dose-Reduction-and-Efficiency-Gains-at-US-Commercial-Nuclear-Facilities.pdf> Retrieved 13 November 2016.
[xvii] Mann, Ted. “3-D Printing Expands to Metals, Showing Industrial Promise”. The Wall Street Journal. 11 November 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/3-d-printing-expands-to-metals-showing-industrial-promise-1478860204> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xviii] Stein, Scott, and Sean Hollister. “Oculus Rift: Welcome to the Future”. CNET. <https://www.cnet.com/special-reports/oculus-rift-review/> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xix] McBride, Sarah. 23 May 2016. “With HoloLens, Microsoft Aims to Avoid Google’s Mistakes”. Reuters. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-microsoft-hololens-idUSKCN0YE1LZ> Retrieved 14 November 2016.
[xx] Gitlin, Jonathan. “Hyundai’s augmented reality manual: A simple but extremely good idea”. Ars Technica. 10 January 2016. <http://arstechnica.com/cars/2016/01/hyundais-augmented-reality-manual-a-simple-but-extremely-good-idea/> Retrieved 14 November 2016.