Coal power isn't going anywhere, but digital technology could be important for making this dirty power source a little cleaner.
On Monday night, GE (ge) announced that it has started selling software and data tools that help coal power plants operate more efficiently. The software taps into data from thousands of sensors placed around a coal plant to help operators make better decisions and to optimize coal plant gear.
A smarter running coal plant could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it emits while generating electricity, compared to traditional coal plants. GE says its data technology could reduce coal plant emissions by 2%, and eliminate the use of 67,000 tons of coal per plant per year.
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GE's chief digital officer Ganesh Bell told Fortune that the coal algorithms, based on GE's Predix software that it created for industrial networks, collects coal plant data and uses machine learning to analyze and predict how its equipment will operate and how the plant will interact with the electrical grid. Some of the technology used comes from GE's acquisition of power company Alstom and a Boston-based startup called Neuco.
GE is applying data technology to an industry that is one of the least digitally mature, Bell said. The underlying algorithms can also be used for other data-driven industrial sectors.
Despite the rise of clean energy, coal power will remain a major part of the world's electricity system into the near future. According to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, India will continue to rely heavily on coal power, and about $1.2 trillion will be invested in new coal-burning power plants and gear over the next several decades worldwide.
But coal companies are facing tough times. A drop in prices is hurting the industry, particularly in the U.S., as domestic natural gas use has grown and regulations discourage dirty energy. The end result is that many major coal companies, like Peabody, have declared bankruptcy in recent years.
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Meanwhile, China is now predicted to use far less coal than previous estimates because of a slowing economy. In a decade there will be 21% less coal used in China than previously predicted, according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report.
With coal on the retreat in major markets like the U.S. and Europe, coal companies will be looking to make aging plants last longer with newer digital technology. Likewise, in the face of ultra low oil prices, oil companies have turned to digital and data tech to make their oil fields and oil operations more productive.