When energy infrastructure fails, the cost is often unbearable. Are better design tools the means to reduce risk, improve efficiency, and prepare the world for a more sustainable future?
The energy business is fraught with hazards. In 1980, a semi-submersible platform named the Alexander L Kielland capsized in the North Sea when the cables securing it to the sea floor snapped during a storm. More than 100 workers died.
Another example: A 2011 tsunami flooded Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing half of its reactors to melt down; the country has since shuttered its remaining nuclear plants, reducing power generation capabilities by 20 percent. And Texans might recall that a series of winter storms took down large chunks of its electrical grid in 2021, leaving millions without water or heat.
Could these and hundreds of other energy-related catastrophes—many of which were due to weather that scientists say will only grow more extreme over the coming decades—have been avoided?
Perhaps, suggested Tony Bromwell, vice president of engineering operations at Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division. “If you ask me to describe the challenges with one word, I’d have to say it’s variability—the variability of the manufacturing processes, the variability of the environmental conditions they happen to be operating in, and the variability that comes with trying to scale upwards for increased efficiency. Each of these comes together to create unique obstacles for energy suppliers and the manufacturers that support them.”
Fortunately, Bromwell and his team provide a range of advanced simulation and analysis tools that address these obstacles and help to “fill the gaps” in the design process. These tools bring immense value to all energy sectors, and are especially beneficial to newer ones such as wind and solar, whose designers lack the decades of knowledge and hard-earned lessons available to legacy sources such as oil and gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric.
Consider a wind farm. Not only are the installations growing more expansive, but the turbines and blades are getting larger as well, in some cases significantly so. Case in point, the Danish energy firm Ørsted A/S’s Hornsea 2, said to be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, became fully operational in September 2022. With 165 turbines spread across an area larger than New Orleans and blades measuring 81 m, the facility can power more than 1.4 million homes in the United Kingdom.
It’s unlikely that Hornsea 2 will hold onto its “world’s biggest” crown for long, though. According to the consulting firm McKinsey and Co., global installed offshore wind capacity is expected to reach 630 GW by 2050, up from 40 GW in 2020. That’s a lot of turbines and blades, all of which will grow larger, increasingly complex, and exponentially more expensive.
The question then becomes how to develop safe, cost-effective designs. “The physics don’t necessarily change as structures grow larger, but more factors come into play,” Bromwell explained. “For example, a short turbine blade tends to be quite stiff relative to the amount of energy it produces, whereas a very long blade is quite flexible—it’s almost like a gigantic noodle spinning around in a big circle. This tremendous length and comparative thinness make it more susceptible not only to its operating demands but to the environmental conditions as well. It must therefore be very carefully designed to withstand forces such as wind gusts and harmonic frequencies.”
Anyone who’s watched video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing in 1940 has enjoyed a front-row seat to the last phenomenon. If the depression-era engineers who designed the “Galloping Gertie” had access to multiphysics simulation software like that offered by Hexagon, however, that bridge and its lone victim—Tubby the dog—would never have ended up at the bottom of the Puget Sound.
“Multiphysics is becoming a critical element in a number of industries, energy among them,” Bromwell noted. “In the case of wind turbines, it provides visibility to airflow around the blades and surrounding structure. And if it’s a floating turbine, as with so many of today’s large wind farms, you also have a view into the hydrodynamics and tidal effects impacting its overall motion.
“Together, these forces could very well clash, leading to frequency issues that might damage the structure or its components,” he continued. “Multiphysics simulation software gives us the ability to avoid this possibility.”
John Lusty, portfolio development executive for energy and smart manufacturing at Siemens Digital Industries Software, Plano, Texas, said that there’s far more to the energy equation than physical forces. “Safety and performance are obviously at the top of the list, but the companies that design, manage, and invest in energy infrastructure also want to reduce their time-to-market and achieve acceptable product margins. In this respect, they’re no different from the so-called ‘normal’ manufacturing industries.”
This last comment is an interesting one. Lusty contends that many in the energy industry have only recently begun thinking of themselves as manufacturers, even though their business model has long shared many similarities. “When it comes right down to it, they’re taking raw materials and using capital equipment to make products that carry value. They have production quotas and requirements and specifications to meet, just like any other manufacturer.”
As a result, energy manufacturers have started adopting the software and technologies that make the aerospace, automotive, and other non-energy sectors successful. Operators of oil and gas power generation facilities, for instance, have traditionally been quite conservative, using industry-specific tools they developed over the last few decades for their specific needs. This was understandable, considering their days are spent managing flammable fluids under immense pressure, often under harsh working conditions, and not producing widgets in a climate-controlled building.
That mindset has begun to shift over the last decade.
“The energy industry is increasingly open to new technology,” Lusty said.
“It’s as if they’ve said, ‘Hey, at the end of the day, we’re all working with data, and if capabilities have been developed in one industry that are now becoming applicable in ours, why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?’”
Chief among those technologies is the digital twin. Together with advanced simulation, energy producers are using these tools to build state-of-the-art facilities and retrofit existing ones. They’re reducing emissions, increasing efficiency and output, making operating systems safer, and extending the lifespans of new and old infrastructure. Experts might not agree on the specific software solution, but they all suggest that digitalization is quickly becoming a driving force throughout the energy industry.
“I’ve been in this field for more than 25 years and can tell you there’s never been a more exciting time,” Lusty said.
One notable example of the industry’s embrace of new technology comes from Canada, where Ontario-based consulting and engineering firm Hatch Inc. is working with the province to extend the life of a major power facility, New Brunswick’s Mactaquac Generating Station. Built in the 1960s, the dam was intended to last 100 years, but unexpected spalling and cracking over the decades began to raise concerns that its long-term future was in jeopardy.
The dam’s original design was sound; the failure was not a matter of inadequate engineering tools, but rather an unforeseen chemical reaction in the concrete used to build the structure. Regardless, developing a strategy for its scheduled refurbishment would have been far more costly and time consuming without computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software.
“The hydraulic design of dams and hydraulic structures have long been verified by constructing scale-model replicas in laboratories and then running water through them,” said Brian Fox, senior applications engineer at Flow Science Inc., a software developer in Santa Fe, N.M. “However, they can be expensive, and take months and months to build. Hatch and many others in the energy industry have found that CFD software can be a valuable tool to be used as an alternative or in conjunction with traditional physical modeling approaches.”
Advanced simulation tools like these can also provide more comprehensive insights than those available in conventional analysis approaches. Fox pointed out that CFD software can provide engineers much greater visibility into fluid behavior than is available with physical models. Hatch has since used these tools to design modifications to the existing structure that will keep it operational for decades to come.
As with other sectors of the energy industry, however, those who design hydroelectric facilities for a living have been slow to adopt these tools.
“Given the intended lifespan of a typical dam and the cost of correcting a mistake, it’s understandable that civil engineers are conservative,” Fox acknowledged. “Nor are many of them familiar with power and ease of use of the 3D-modeling tools that have become available over recent years. But once we show them the possibilities and illustrate that they can save huge amounts of time and money—and design more effective structures—they quickly see the light. It’s a very disruptive technology.”
Disruption is occurring in other energy sectors as well. Rick Sturgeon, senior director of transportation and mobility for Dassault Systèmes, with U.S. headquarters in Waltham, Mass., noted that battery development was once a matter of build it, test it, see what happens, and do it again, repeating this time-consuming and expensive process until engineers either reached acceptable results or ran out of project money.
“Because of this, battery designs didn’t change much for a long time,” he said. “In the last few years, though, the concept of using computer simulations—especially at the atomic level—has really gained steam. Engineers can now run hundreds of thousands of virtual scenarios, pick the best five or six, build them, learn from the results, and continue iterating at a much faster pace than was previously possible. The entire industry is now in that mode.”
That’s good news, considering that the widespread adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, not to mention electric vehicles, depends on reliable power storage. In a recent article from the World Economic Forum, the author states that batteries will “facilitate the energy transition,” adding that Bloomberg predicts demand for lithium-ion batteries will increase 17-fold by 2030.
Sturgeon noted that simulation and the virtual twin will help facilitate this transition. “You can start building a battery at the cell level, then go on to determine how you’re going to manufacture and assemble those cells, package the battery for the available space within the vehicle, and see how it will interact with the other parts of the car such as the motors and infotainment system, all within a digital, collaborative environment. The virtual twin changes everything.”
Of course, the demands of battery design are far less than those of oil rigs, wind farms, and hydroelectric dams. The latter are expected to operate around the clock for decades, while the batteries in the family car will be lucky to reach their late teens (for now) before heading to the recycling center. The costs of failure are also much higher.
“With a typical automotive recall, the owner drives it to the shop, a mechanic replaces the defective component, and the customer goes on their way. It’s still expensive, and it’s still a mistake and you want to avoid it whenever possible, but it’s nowhere near the scale of a failure on an offshore drilling platform,” said Scott Parent, vice president and chief technical officer for field energy and industrials at Canonsburg, Pa.-based Ansys Inc.
As noted earlier, large energy assets are typically constructed onsite, often under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s critical that every conceivable contingency is accounted for and that everything will work as designed.Further, the individual components like fans, pumps, electronics, and so on must operate for years on end in harsh environments. Failure here might mean shutting down a multi-million dollar facility that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each day—worse, a shutdown could disrupt the flow of energy to customers whose very lives depend on it.
This is why high-end design and simulation software is more important than ever. “I can’t share the specifics but I just spoke with a customer who had an unexpected failure in a very simple component,” Parent confided. “There’s no chance for a recall in this situation—someone has to get on a plane or helicopter and fly out there to service it in the field, and that’s assuming the replacement part is available. So the sensitivity to any design shortcomings becomes pretty high at these scales and operating conditions. That’s probably the biggest separator between the energy industry and others using our tools.”
Sustainability also comes into play. Setting aside the fact that much of the energy industry is moving toward renewable sources, the players are also looking at ways to make traditional energy producers more earth friendly. For instance, companies are designing huge steam turbines that are then integrated into coal-fired plants, where waste gases are evacuated through scrubbing units. Here again, advanced software tools allow these manufacturers to simulate and optimize system performance before the first piece of metal is cut or screw turned.
They can also design turbine blades and other massive energy components that are more recyclable at their end of life.
“A decade ago, independent and national oil companies weren’t talking much about sustainability,” Parent said. “But it seems as though there’s been enough regulatory groundswell and interest from consumers that we’ve reached a tipping point. Even the most stalwart energy producers are now leaning forward, saying, ‘Okay, maybe we should begin looking at alternatives.’
“Sustainability is driving this energy transition, and that in turn is driving us away from fossil fuels to renewables and nuclear,” he continued. “Through it all, the digital twin and advanced simulation will make designing for the coming energy revolution easier, faster, and more effective.”
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