Paul Dvorak, Editor, Windpower Engineering & Development
Operations and maintenance (O&M) costs dominate the balance sheets of wind farms, and more so when unscheduled maintenance crops up. When turbines are new, the operators probably look to the OEM for service. But after the warranty expires, why would an owner look anywhere else than the company that design the turbine in the first place?
To find out, we called several utilities with wind farms and asked several questions. Our goal was to sample the opinion and maybe reveal which organization, ISP or OEM, provide better turbine care.
The good news is that wind farm owners are quite diplomatic when discussing their preferences. Nobody trashed any other company. Criticism was mild at its worse.
In any case, here’s what asked and learned:
1 What has been your experience with O&M crews from both the OEM and ISP?
“Actually, pretty good,” says Steve Butler, Manager of Generation, Substations, and Fiber Optics at Waverly Light & Power. “Vestas does our work on our NEG Micon unit and they have done a good job keeping it up. And on two other turbines, the crews from EWT (a direct-drive turbine manufacturer) work on a maintenance contract for those generators. They have done good job on them. However, I think, the EWT crews probably don’t have the experiences as the Vesta crews but they are getting better. I trust both of them.”
Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative had been using an ISP since the warranty period of the two projects it owns. The decision was made during that time to take care of O&M internally when the warranty period completed. As planned, the co-op hired two wind technicians and began conducting operation and maintenance on its own.
“The thought behind the decision to provide O&M service internally includes several key points, so as to reduce O&M costs,” says Alden Zeitz, Manager of Operations and Maintenance at Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative. “One is that technicians will take ownership of the turbines which usually results in better care. This would also increase turbine availability and production because ILEC technicians will be dedicated to the wind turbines.”
He adds that over many years of experience, several pros and cons regarding both OEM’s and ISP’s have come to light. “For instance, the OEM team will have direct contact with engineering staff that designed that wind turbine, a great advantage when troubleshooting some faults. Another plus for OEMs: Spare parts are easier to obtain because the OEM has sourced the parts to build the wind turbine. And thirdly, based on above, OEM crews will typically have more intimate knowledge of their turbines.”
There is a downside too, he says. “For instance, in the event of a disagreement, it could be more difficult to present a case. An independent third party would be more helpful presenting a case to the OEM. You know, our word against theirs. Also, some OEMs may have a tendency to hide turbine issues or make changes without notifying the site owner. And, technicians may not take ’ownership’ of turbines because they may have responsibility at more than one site, especially so if they are retained just for the warranty period which can be a short-term contract.”
Zeitz also sites pros and cons for selecting an ISP for operation and maintenance of a site. “On the up side, the ISP crews would have an independent voice when needed to deal with OEM issues. Also, the ISP will usually have a broader knowledge base on the operational side of the site. They could have a deep knowledge base on maintenance of specific turbines, but that is not always the case. ISP crews can bring more solution options to turbine problems after warranty because they are not tied to specific vendors for components. Finally, the ISP will tend to have more direct communication with site owner.
There are also a few downsides to an ISP crew. “For instance, they may not have easy access to engineering support and may have more difficulty obtaining specialized components or parts for a turbine. It’s also possible that the technicians may not take “ownership” of turbines if the O&M contract is short term or if they are not dedicated to one site,” he says.
From a business perspective, it may not make financial sense to dedicate a Technician team or two for a particular site. Doing so would drive up costs, so in some situations it may be best to dedicate those crews to a number of sites or turbines depending on the situation.
“Our experience has been good,” says Hans Owens, Vice President of Operations with Infigen Energy. “Wind techs from ISPs and OEMs have given us good service so we like to use both.”
Not everyone has experience with crews from both organizations. “Before I started working here, the decision was made to go away from the manufacturer and to a 3rd party,” says Nick Fanning, Resource Engineer with Missouri River Energy. “So since I’ve been managing the wind turbines we’ve been under ISP maintenance. However, cost is always a big driver for everything.”
2. Does your organization gain particular advantages or value when using an ISP versus the OEM (or vice versa) for operations & maintenance? Can you identify one or two advantages?
“We don’t see an advantage of one over the other, both do a good job for us,” says Waverly’s Steve Butler. “We have had no problems to speak of so maybe our turbines are not a really good test. Everything is running well. We send a guy uptower every once in a while to make sure, but so far both crews have done a good job.”
“One may have an advantage over the other because the company may have certain expertise in wind, so we use them for that,” says Infigen’s Hans Owens. “It just depends on the service, timing, and cost.”
3. What considerations do you weigh when deciding to use either an ISP or OEM?
Before calling an O&M crew, Iowa Lakes’ Zeitz says he considers their experience, safety record, reputation, cost, support structure, and the financial health of their organization.
“One consideration is after warranty work. In particular, when they have a specialty such as gearbox replacement” says Infigen’s Owens. “Cost is a big aspect as well because we are in a cost controlled environment. One way to control costs is to ask for several bids on the needed work. This is a competitive environment so we evaluate the bids to see who has the best value for the company before going forward.”
4. What do you expect from O&M crews, regardless of their source organization?
“I expect both crews to monitor their turbines so if there is a problem they come take care of it,” says Waverly’s Butler. “They don’t wait to be told of a problem. If I have to call them, then we have a problem. Both turbines have monitoring equipment and we both get an email should a turbine go down. When there is an issue, the OEM crews usually notify us right away and tell when they’ll be here to fix it. They do a good job.”
“The expectation is that they are responsible technicians assigned to the site,” says Iowa Lakes’ Zeitz. “If not, there will most likely be delays in responding to turbine faults, and technicians will most likely not ‘take ownership’ of the turbines. Furthermore, I would expect them to behave as professionals. That makes communication an important point. For instance, I expect them to not hide issues that may arise.”
“First and foremost, we expect anyone who works for us to have a good safety record,” says Infigen’s Owens. “That is a number one priority. So if it looks like we want to use a particular company, and after an evaluation we think the company needs a little help with its safety program, we’ll assist them with that.”
Owens adds that it’s important to be procedure driven, that is, to have a set of procedures for maintenance tasks developed by the company, and to follow the procedures when completing the task. If they have a particular expertise on the line, they can use their procedures. It depends on the task,” says Owens. “We have our procedures as well, and might compare them to the procedures used by the O&M company. If someone has a particular expertise or niche in the industry, for which they want to show us their procedures, and it adds value, we will definitely use that one.”
Crews should also follow up on their work. “Make sure the quality of work meets our expectations,” says Owens. “In addition, we appreciate any value add. That is, while up in the turbine, if they spot another issue or they provide some extra service, we would encourage that,” he adds.
5. What would you consider above and beyond the call of O&M duty? Can you provide an example of such an event?
Everyone paused when asked this question. We’ll have to think about that, they would say and then they came around to comments such as:
“The guys that do the service are really good at telling us of the work they expect coming up and before it happens. I like that,” says Waverly’s Butler. “They try to get things fixed before they break so they do a lot of extra checking. When they have a problem on one EWT turbine, they look a little closer to make sure the other does not have the same problem. I expect that so there is nothing I would define as over-and-above.”
“Typically ISP and OEM crews provide just the services defined in a contract for scheduled maintenance, troubleshooting, repair, and possibly production analysis or fault analysis,” says Iowa Lakes’ Zeitz. “Our experience is that OEMs will most likely conduct fault analysis for their own need. But what I would consider above-and-beyond would be when a service provider goes the extra mile to recognize a potential serial problem, investigates the issue, comes up with a solution, and communicates with the site owner throughout the whole process. Or, take the extra steps to work through a process to increase the power production from the turbines by, for example, analyzing of blade-pitch angles, rotor balance, or some other function.”
“Our maintenance provider has often done work for us above and beyond the call of duty, says Missouri River’s Fanning. “We have always been willing to pay a fair wage and those guys have always exceeded our expectations. They do good work. When you get into maintenance on wind turbines there will be a good amount of troubleshooting. Here is a real key. If you have someone good at troubleshooting, who can identify problems, that will help keep maintenance costs down and availability up.”
“Above and beyond the call, I would say, is extremely good housekeeping,” adds Infigen’s Owens. “Once the job is finished, on time and safely, we can determine what’s needed for the next maintenance cycle. Above and beyond would be to follow the work with documentation and be ready for the next job.”
6. What would you suggest to another wind farm owner when that person is shopping for O&M services?
The managers we interviewed recommended asking these questions regarding new or untested crews:
What is their reputation? Pick a reputable company, someone who’s name has been out there for a while. “They don’t have to be the biggest company,” says Waverly’s Butler. “Talk to enough in the industry and find out who is doing good work and who is new on the block. One concern is that a company might offer a low price but it might not deliver sufficient quality.
What is their experience level? Ask about the experience of the technicians and their plan for staffing the site. “Make sure they have a good knowledge base and experience operating and maintaining wind turbines,” says Zeitz.
Are the crew members properly trained? “You can’t hold an O&M company accountable if they don’t have procedures and have not fully trained their crews,” says Owens.
What safety culture do they embrace? Ask about their safety record and for a copy of their written safety program. First and foremost, the O&M company should have a good safety record.
What is their access to outside services and spare parts?
Where is the crew located? “My first question is always location,” says Missouri River’s Fanning. “If the crew has a shop near the wind turbine site, that keeps costs down. Otherwise, you’re just paying guys to drive.”
How will they report on their work or service? “We get a report on what they did. Usually, both crews call and tell us what they will be doing for scheduled maintenance.
Is the company procedure driven? The O&M company should have procedures and process for the individuals working for them whether they are technical or administrative procedures.
Are they good communicators? How will the crew let the owner know what they are doing? “You need good communications with them. A lot of guys hire someone to do the work and they never come unless there is a problem. We’d like the confidence that they will catch everything they should catch,” says Waverly’s Butler.
“I believe this discussion is important,” adds Infigen’s Owens. “From Infigen’s perspective, key considerations when choosing O & M crews focus on safety and having strong procedures in place with training on both.”