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Power Plant Goes Wireless Three Ways

July 17, 2007

While many folks put one toe in the water, some jump in with both feet.

So, while some process control users may slowly test wireless for limited monitoring in non-critical corners of their plants, a few brave engineers are blanketing their facilities with multiple wireless protocols, and finding 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 WiFi hotspot,” said Dave Runkle, production manager at Lost Pines Power Park, which includes a 42-year-old natural gas power plant, and is part of the Lower Colorado River Authority. The park began operating as one of the first co-generation power plants in 2001, and is now a 545-megawatt facility that’s reportedly 30-40% more efficient than traditional gas-fired plants. “Each day, we’re finding new ways to incorporate wireless into our infrastructure.”

“We joke that we’ve basically turned our site into a giant WiFi hotspot.” Dave Runkle, production manager at Lost Pines Power Park, on the power producer’s deployment of a “future-proofed” multi-protocol wireless environment.

Lost Pines began its journey to wireless when it recently merged with the three-unit, 620-megawatt Sim Gideon power plant next door, downsized many redundant staffing functions, and began seeking a way to resolve Sim Gideon’s public address system with Lost Pines’ radio-based communications. Runkle says it was at their annual strategic alliance meeting that Invensys representatives 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 360˚ WiMax backhaul that created wireless umbrella over the plant; installed 52 WiFi access points throughout the plant for local area network (LAN) access; established a common-infrastructure enabled Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to support a wireless Vocera push-to-talk application; and installed wireless speakers throughout the facility. This system also integrates with the staff’s PBX and personal cell phones for enhanced connectivity.

The plant’s new wireless infrastructure uses Invensys-partner Apprion’s Ionosphere network platform and Ionizer devices.

Runkle says these three wireless technologies give Lost Pines a way to economically solve the two sites’ integrated communications challenge, and provided a foundation for continued return on investment by “future proofing” the facility for wireless apps being developed. “This also created a cost-effective means to bring lower-priority equipment controls, indications and alarming functionality to a central control for monitoring,” said Runkle. “Also, wireless enabled connection of remote sites via long-distance WiMax technology. For example, we’re wirelessly controlling our river pumping station five 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.”

Runkle added that other benefits that Lost Pines has gained from wireless include: keeping costs manageable with its 360° wireless umbrella; securing excellent wireless RF coverage with wide bandwidth backhaul 802.16 and WiFi 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 for emergency broadcasts throughout the facility to alert all personnel about evacuation and notifications to emergency response services.

“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 start 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,” Runkle said. “Opportunities for wireless applications are limited only by the imagination.”

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