Some people have a good view from their corner office. In Justin Eggart's case, he has one of the most expansive views of the world's power plant fleet.
Eggart manages GE's remote monitoring and diagnostics center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he oversees the operation of 1,600 gas and steam turbines totaling 200 gigawatts of capacity. That represents roughly 25 percent of the world's power plant mix.
Being able to monitor one-quarter of the world's power plants in real time is cool, but it's not the most interesting part of Eggart's job. Being able to act on the information streaming out of those plants instantaneously and remotely is what's so groundbreaking.
"The information we can access hasn't changed all that materially. It's our ability to collect the data that's changed," said Eggart. "Our analytical capabilities are ten times greater than they were five years ago."
The old paradigm for power plant maintenance, which was dominant until very recently, was manual and time-intensive. When a power plant operator had a problem, GE would send an engineer out to check a generator and correct the issue on-site. The process could take weeks, depending on the problem.
Today, with better sensors and stronger computing power, GE engineers are often able to identify an operational problem from their desks in Atlanta -- sometimes before the problem even occurs. That cuts down on the time engineers need to spend fixing a generator, or can even cut out a site visit entirely.
"What took days to fix at a generator now takes hours. We can identify problems in a few minutes. That wasn't possible even a few years ago," said Eggart.
Through data analysis, Eggart's team of twenty engineers can save power plant operators tens of millions of dollars a year. In 2011, GE reported that it saved customers $70 million on fuel costs through remote maintenance.
The company estimates that a 1 percent efficiency increase in country-level natural gas generation could reduce fuel costs by $3 billion worldwide by 2015 -- with cumulative savings reaching $66 billion by 2030.
The monitoring center in Atlanta is ground zero for GE's industrial internet, the global technology giant's latest strategy blending IT and data analytics with machines in the built environment. Along with thermal power generation, GE is applying the concept to wind turbines andstorageto create a "brilliant" hybrid renewable energy system that can quickly adapt to changing weather or market conditions, while also being deployed in lower-wind environments.
GE also launched a new grid management system in January called Grid IQ Insight that monitors meter data, weather, energy prices and even social media to identify and predict outages on the electrical system. The company has hired hundreds of engineers in California to help build its data analytics division.
But GE's bread and butter is still thermal power generation. And although the company is bullish on renewable energy, it has put a lot of stock into natural gas generation, which is expected to grow by more than 40 percent in the next 25 years.
"I monitor the largest gas turbine fleet in the world," said Eggart. "I can see things happening all around the world that no one else can see -- not even the largest utilities."
That fleet clocks roughly 30,000 operating hours a day and 100 million operating hours a year, generating a lot of data to parse through.
With such an expansive view of the world's thermal generation portfolio, Eggart and his team have seen demand for power stagnate in European countries, witnessed Japan switch its fuel mix after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and watched natural gas creep up on coal in the U.S.
Responding to these changes, GE is moving beyond simple maintenance and using its new data-crunching abilities to help power plant operators sell into electricity markets. The service, called GE Predictivity Solutions, has been in development over the last year.
The service will also help power plant owners optimize their fleets as they integrate more renewable energy.
GE's power plant services mirror trends underway in the intelligent efficiency sector, where some of the biggest efficiency gains in the built environment are being realized through improved data gathering techniques, not necessarily through new major technology upgrades. ACEEE estimates that intelligent efficiency could cut U.S. energy use by 22 percent.
"The hardware continues to improve, but slowly compared to the software and data analysis piece," said Eggart. "That side is accelerating much faster than anything."