Power Plant Goes Wireless Three Ways

Next-Door-neighbor Power Plants Merge and Install three wireless technologies to Integrate Communications and Control

By Jim Montague, executive editor

Many folks put one toe in the water first. Others jump in with both feet.

So, while most process control users gradually test wireless for limited monitoring in non-critical corners of their plants, a few brave engineers blanket their facilities with multiple wireless protocols, and find more and more places and applications to use wireless and gain its advantages.

“We joke that we’ve basically turned our site into a giant Wi-Fi hotspot,” says Dave Runkel, production manager at Texas-based Lost Pines Power Park, which includes a 42-year-old natural gas plant and is part of the Lower Colorado River Authority. Located about 30 miles from Austin, the park began operating as a combined-cycle, cogeneration power plant in 2001. In a combined cycle, electricity is produced from several different thermodynamic cycles, with a heating system ultimately used as a condenser of the plant’s bottoming cycle. For example, the exhaust from a gas turbine might be used to power a steam turbine, the condensate from which provides heat. Lost Pines Power Park now is a 545-MW facility that’s reportedly 30-40% more efficient than traditional gas-fired plants (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Lost Pines and Sim Gideon

Lost Pines Power Park began operating as one of the nation’s first combined-cycle, cogeneration power plants in 2001, and now is a 545-MW facility that’s reportedly 30-40% more efficient than traditional gas-fired plants.
Photograph courtesy of LRCA
Lost Pines recently began its journey to wireless when it merged with the three-unit, 620-MW Sim Gideon power plant next door, downsized many redundant staffing functions shared by the two plants, and began seeking a way to resolve Sim Gideon’s Gai-Tronics public-address system with Lost Pines’ radio-based communications.

“Many of Sim Gideon’s systems were reaching the end of their useful lives and needed to be replaced anyway,” says Runkel.

Management began with an RFP for a hard-wired PA system, but that caused instant sticker shock, so we began to ask ourselves if wireless might resolve some of the communications differences between the two facilities. So, the PA was our first system to go wireless. Now, each day, we’re finding new ways to incorporate wireless into our infrastructure.”

Runkel says it was during Lost Pines’ annual strategic alliance meeting that representatives from Invensys proposed implementing a wireless umbrella at the plant. Lost Pines and Invensys jointly conducted a wireless assessment to determine coverage and equipment placement and then implemented a smorgasbord of wireless solutions to tie the two plant sites together. These solutions included:

  • Building a 360° WiMax backhaul that created a wireless umbrella over the plant (Figure 2);
  • Installing 52 Wi-Fi access points throughout the plant for local area network access; 
  • Establishing a common-infrastructure enabled voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) to support a wireless Vocera push-to-talk application;  
  • Installing wireless speakers throughout the facility (Figure 3); and 
  • Integrating the overall system with the staff’s PBX and personal cell phones for enhanced connectivity.

Figure 2: Under the Umbrella

A 360˚ WiMax backhaul installed at a high point in the middle of the power park creates wireless umbrella over the two-plant site.
Photograph courtesy of LRCA 
“The key to a successful wireless project is knowing what application or business problem wireless can solve,” says Greg Burns, Invensys’ wireless performance services leader. “Do you need a mobile work force, field data logging, condition monitoring, asset tracking, physical security, personnel safety, or improved communications? Wireless brings a lot to the table, so you have to assess what’s appropriate for each application.” 

Lost Pines’ new wireless infrastructure uses Invensys-partner Apprion’s Ionosphere network platform and Ionizer devices. “The Ion platform manages the controller and distributed component appliances, as well as three high-speed and three low-speed radios at Lost Pines,” says Steve Lambright, president and CEO at Apprion. “The platform scans and acquires all the wireless devices at the site and brings them under its management This allows the application to be integrated and visualized and gives Lost Pines a geographical MySpace for its entire plant, with all of its devices in one view. Users can click on a listed device and display its management console or click up- and downstream through the system.” As a result, claims Lambright, wireless can provide immediate, measurable ROI, an extensible framework and infrastructure, lower entry costs, more vendor choices, predictable ownership costs, and improved physical security and safety.

Runkel adds that Lost Pines’ three main wireless technologies provided a way to economically solve the two sites’ communications differences and provided a foundation for continued return on investment by future-proofing the facility for down-the-road wireless applications. “This also created a cost-effective means to bring lower-priority equipment controls, indications and alarming functionality to a central control for monitoring,” says Runkel. “Also, wireless enabled connection of remote sites via long-distance WiMax technology. For example, we’re wirelessly controlling our river pumping station 5 miles away, where we’re monitoring flow and currents, and even turning pumps on and off. We’re also in the engineering design phase to include wireless at a remote/unmanned peaker plant site.”

Figure 3: In the Right Circles

A bird’s-eye view of Lost Pines shows where WiMax, Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11), and VoIP coverage radiuses are located at the two sites.
Photograph courtesy of LRCA  
Runkel says Lost Pines gained other benefits from wireless including keeping costs manageable with its 360° wireless umbrella; securing wireless RF coverage with wide-bandwidth backhaul 802.16 and Wi-Fi networks; enabling facility-wide network connectivity; minimizing impact of device failures with real-time detection; securing its network against rogue device interference; organizing all wireless data in one system; providing plant-wide voice communication and loudspeaker broadcasting throughout the facility; and gaining the capability to make emergency broadcasts throughout the facility to alert personnel about evacuation and notifications to emergency response services.

Some other wireless applications presently in development at Lost Pines include more use of WiMax longshot technology, extension of push-to-talk communications with a parent site, video surveillance of plant for security and visual monitoring, possible equipment health monitoring, FW heater level control and alarming, tank farm fuel-oil level indications, high-temperature furnace video monitoring, burner performance, fireball monitoring, burner tilt performance, miscellaneous alarming functions, sewage lift stations, and anhydrous ammonia leak detection.

“The main lessons we learned are to get IT involved early and don’t fight them; form a project team early; don’t let wireless be implemented in an ad hoc fashion; think enterprise-wide because wireless isn’t just for control measurements; and understand there’s no one technology that will address all needs,” says Runkel. “Opportunities for wireless applications are limited only by our imagination.” 


Wireless 101

WiMAX stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, and was named by the WiMAX Forum. It’s an IEEE 802.16 standards-based technology that enables delivery of last-mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL. WiMAX will provide fixed, nomadic, portable, and, eventually, mobile wireless broadband connectivity without needing direct, line-of-sight to a base station. In a typical cell radius deployment of 3 to 10 km, forum-certified systems can be expected to deliver capacity of up to 40 Mbps per channel, for fixed and portable access applications.

Wi-Fi is the name given to IEEE standard 802.11b for wireless local area networks (LANs) operating in the 2.4 GHz spectrum with a bandwidth of 11 Mbps. Wi-Fi is administered by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which reports that Wi-Fi and WiMAX will coexist and become increasingly complementary technologies for their respective applications. Wi-Fi technology was designed and optimized for LANs, while WiMAX was designed and optimized for Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs). WiMAX typically isn’t thought of as a replacement for Wi-Fi. Instead, the alliance adds that WiMAX complements Wi-Fi by extending its reach and providing a Wi-Fi-like user experience on a larger geographical scale.

VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol (IP)—also known as IP Telephony, Internet telephony, broadband telephony, broadband phone, and voice over broadband—is the routing of voice conversations over the Internet or through any other IP-based network. Companies providing VoIP service commonly are referred to as providers, and the protocols used to carry voice signals over the IP network are referred to as Voice over IP or VoIP protocols.