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Exclusive: Using digitalisation to achieve net zero infrastructure in power and renewables

How digital twins, data-led decision-making and 3D virtual environments are changing the face of construction in the power and renewables industry.
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This article was originally published by Power Engineering International

How digital twins, data-led decision-making and 3D virtual environments are changing the face of construction in the power and renewables industry. By Sébastien Mousseau of SNC-Lavalin

With the ongoing effects of climate change, countries worldwide have announced ambitious targets to reach Net Zero emissions – including the UK and Canada, both of which are hoping to reach this goal by 2050.

However, according to SNC-Lavalin’s Engineering Net Zero Technical Report, achieving this in Canada would require the country to triple its power production over the next 30 years.

This additional production must also be accompanied by the corresponding transmission and distribution infrastructure, as well as the electrification of all corresponding loads.

The methods that have been used for the last three decades to design, execute, operate, and maintain large infrastructure projects will be completely inadequate when faced with a challenge of this magnitude.

Automated processes

The Canadian workforce will not triple either, in the next 30 years. Infrastructure companies will therefore need more automated processes, less rework, better interdisciplinary coordination and live collaboration between the field and the design office, if they are to achieve this.

They are also going to need to do more – a lot more – with the same resources, and the key to this lies with the integration of advanced, data-driven, digital technologies into the construction world.

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Reaching the Net Zero emissions target set out in the Glasgow Climate Pact requires a potential doubling of current global hydropower capacity, according to the International Energy Agency.

Now, try to imagine all the disciplines that contribute to a new hydroelectric plant: architecture, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, construction, and project management, to name just a few.

All these disciplines traditionally execute the project on the basis of static 2D plans. By the time that work gets initiated on the construction site, conflicts and clashes start occurring – and usually lots of them. That wastes a lot of time and money.

By contrast, if the design is performed based on a single dynamic 3D system – such as a digital twin – this will be avoided. No one puts a pipe where someone else has put a stairwell.

Digital twins, data-led decision-making and 3D virtual environments are changing the face of construction in the power and renewables industry.

They are especially advantageous on large-scale, multi-year projects, such as the John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project in British Columbia. Such a project could easily take ten years to complete.

But by creating a database and starting the workflow in a digital environment from day one, you also get ten years’ worth of value and more from it. And that value extends to far more than just clash avoidance, important as that may be. It creates significant efficiencies for the client too.

Completing the project and leaving a client with a complete 3D model also greatly facilitates the transition of the operations and maintenance activities to the digital world.

The evolution of digital in Canada

Canada has been at the forefront of the digitisation of major infrastructure projects. In 2003, SNC-Lavalin Hydropower Group became the first team in SNC-Lavalin to use BIM for the engineering of the Mercier Hydroelectric Powerhouse using CATIA for our client, Hydro-Québec.

The industry did not have drawings derived from a 3D model at the time but could benefit from data to significantly optimise project management and the use of materials.

Since then, we have witnessed a general push towards digitisation, data-led engineering, and the use of digital twins. Even recently, many engineers could have used 3D environments, but they preferred to work on paper, or at least in a 2D environment.

That’s no longer the case. The younger generation sees the advantage of virtual environments and data-led working methods.

Put simply, it’s easier and more collaborative, it allows us to leverage talent from anywhere on the planet, it gets the right results faster — and it’s more fun.

Digital construction as a competitive advantage

Data-led and digital construction techniques can be a huge differentiator for those working in the power and renewables sector. That’s primarily because when you’re working in hydro or other types of renewables, there aren’t many ‘standard’ projects, so the cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work.

Every project is a prototype, so to speak. In that situation, if you can use a dynamic platform to draw on a range of libraries and reduce clashes and over-runs, that will hugely benefit project outcomes.

In an ideal world, you’d have one digital platform on every project. Sometimes, that’s not possible because different parties work within their own systems.

However, these systems can almost always be made to work well together. Collaboration is key to realising the full value of digitisation and common, virtualised working environments.

By working across disciplines and project partners, it’s possible to realise benefits across the entire project, helping to cut costs and ensure that all disciplines hit their milestones on time and on budget.

The technology to facilitate this is already here, and it can yield massive value for consumers, contractors, and project owners. It’s now up to us as an industry to be bolder and start taking full advantage of it.

So, should we all just dive into digital? Well, yes – but perhaps not headfirst. If you haven’t used these digital tools before, you may not want to start experimenting with a $15bn project.

Better to start small and work your way up. As your people and processes adapt, apply digital and data-led techniques to bigger projects. In this way, you should still be able to digitise fairly rapidly, but in a sustainable way.

Meeting net zero targets

Right now, the biggest trend in our industry – perhaps in every industry – is the drive to Net Zero. Digitisation and data-led construction techniques are key to this goal.

By using them, we can model current and possible future states, discover efficiencies, and eliminate waste in ways that just aren’t possible with traditional techniques.

One approach to reaching Net Zero targets would be to incorporate BIM modelling and Lean Construction into engineering activities. Lean Construction is an approach that improves construction processes with minimum cost and waste, and at maximum value.

By coupling this with a 3D BIM-compliant model, tasks such as interdisciplinary coordination, prefabrication, automated work packages and resource levelling can be accomplished, while reducing on site presence and minimising waste.

The end result: a reduction in energy consumption and removal of overall ineffectiveness. 

4D modelling

Taking it a step further, a 4D model can be developed and used to simulate an optimised planning schedule for construction activities.

This allows for the continuous updating of the model to reflect existing and projected schedules, to visualise site progress and have foresight to potential coordination issues.

In addition to allowing for rapid turnaround with coordination issues, the 4D model also enables the comparison of various scenarios to determine the most efficient way forward, removes any uncertainties and provides confidence for all stakeholders involved in the project. 

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Overall, the incorporation of BIM and Lean Construction into projects can leverage data produced in the engineering activities and mitigate risks.

The design and engineering can be done with construction activities in mind, which allows for optimal planning and a reduction of project schedule and energy consumption, in line with the Net Zero initiative. 

The scale-up of engineering and construction efforts required to meet Net Zero targets may be daunting. More projects are going to require more people and in many areas of the world the current workforce is, or is going to be, stretched thin.

To meet its goals, the construction industry is therefore going to have to overcome its historically weak productivity growth record and embrace data-driven technologies. If you’re serious about net zero, now is the time to digitise.

Sébastien Mousseau is Senior Vice-President and Managing Director, Power, Renewables and Life Sciences – Engineering Services Canada – SNC-Lavalin

The post Exclusive: Using digitalisation to achieve net zero infrastructure in power and renewables appeared first on Power Engineering International.

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