By Bruce Hall, CEO, ONYX InSight
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many countries to take restrictive actions on the movement of people and goods to slow the spread of the outbreak and save lives. Amid lockdown, many sections of the economy need to continue working through the crisis to provide vital goods and services — this includes the energy sector and wind energy.
Demand for energy, although reduced in the short term, has not stopped during the epidemic. Indeed, reliable and robust energy supplies are crucial to the fight against coronavirus and to help countries around the world maintain a degree of normality in their economies. Energy is needed to maintain critical infrastructure, such as healthcare and telecommunications — but it is also necessary to power households during isolation, especially for the modern technology that drives productivity and global communication.
To maintain energy supply now, and secure it for when the world emerges from the pandemic, generating infrastructure needs to be managed in the most effective and safest way possible. Owner-operators with effective digital strategies will be able to remotely monitor and manage asset health without needing to send teams onsite, thus helping to ensure their wind farms remain online and productive during the epidemic wherever possible.
What is the role of the wind energy industry during this crucial period?
Wind energy is an increasingly significant part of global power generation, and, for many countries, wind farms provide a significant proportion of their energy mix — wind energy makes up 15% of EU energy supply. In the UK, where wind energy makes up one-fifth of the energy supply, much of this is located offshore, where logistics are challenging even in normal circumstances.
Compared to many conventional power generation methods, wind energy production is quite resilient in the face of lockdown. This is because wind turbines do not depend on a supply chain of raw materials for on-going generation, unlike fossil fuels, and can be run safely for large periods of time without having to have supervising staff on site, unlike nuclear.
That is not to say that wind farms can be run unsupported while global supply chains and labor are disrupted by COVID-19. Wind turbines, like any rotating machinery, will gradually experience wear and tear on key components after years of operation. In order to keep wind turbines operating at maximum efficiency during this period, and minimize disruption due to downtime, operators will be more reliant on digitalization and remote monitoring.
Speaking to ONYX InSight clients and contacts in the past few weeks, businesses have been raising a range of concerns about response to COVID-19:
- There are concerns about labor and parts shortages.
- These are likely to result in a surge of activity in H2 as work is delayed into the later part of the year.
- Respondents were unanimous in believing that the use of new digital tools would increase in a post COVID-19 world.
It has become increasingly clear that the wind industry must collaborate to avoid the looming supply chain and labor crunch in Q3. With maintenance operations delayed due to current restrictions on movement and supply chain disruption for parts, many wind farm owner-operators will be looking to schedule vital maintenance in the latter months of the low wind season. Increased demand for technicians and components could cause difficulties in autumn if the wind industry fails to take action now to put a strategy in place.
Understanding how to keep a turbine running when a technical team cannot perform routine maintenance will be vitally important for operators in order to get through to Q3 without losing assets. Through a combination of a digitalized fleet and expert engineering consultancy, known as predictive maintenance, owner operators will be able to develop and implement a strategy to keep more of their turbines running during the pandemic.
How predictive maintenance can help to keep the lights on
Predictive maintenance combines the digital collection and remote reporting of data from a wind farm with engineering analysis, which is supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning tools. By modelling multiple streams of data — such as vibration, temperature and oil condition — against historic turbine data, machine learning engineers are able to forecast how and when changes in the condition of a wind turbine’s drive train will result in failure between six and 24 months in advance, depending on the fault.
Insight into the health of turbines generated in this way enables owner-operators to make more informed decisions when it comes to the operations and maintenance (O&M) of their entire wind energy fleet. The goal of this approach is to reduce or eliminate the need to send technicians out to wind turbines and provide cost savings by increasing lead times for parts.
In order to achieve this goal, it is essential to work with partners who understand the engineering behind the machines they monitor. If owner-operators rely on an artificial intelligence-only approach, they risk increasing site visits when algorithms capture and report false positives. Expert engineers can also advise on how to keep turbines running for longer during lockdown even when they experience faults that might have ordinarily resulted in downtime or the need for a technician to visit the site.
In short, a good digitalization strategy allows owner operators to access all their performance data, gain insights into the operating conditions of their fleet and share this with engineers anywhere. A digitalization partner should provide actionable advice that helps them activate the best O&M strategy to keep their turbines producing energy until restrictions on the movement of people and goods are eased,.
In relation to COVID-19, this approach will minimize catastrophic turbine failures. The supply chain and workforce crunch may cause difficulties in Q3 if industry-wide O&M strategies are not implemented, but having assets offline for months will have a severe impact on revenues. It’s critical that downtime is minimized. More broadly, better planning can save operators as much as 30% of their O&M budgets.
The resurgence of wind after COVID-19
By putting more information in the hands of hardworking technicians, O&M managers and engineers, digitalization will help the industry to keep on track during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Indeed, the crisis could see the trend toward digitalization accelerate, as short-term necessity evolves into long-term strategy.
This will be especially important as economies recover from the crisis, the demand for energy increases, and governments look to low cost, stable solutions. With prices of fossil fuels at an all-time low, wind energy will need to ensure it is operating as efficiently as possible to remain competitive and drive its development forward.
The good news is that, by reducing O&M costs, predictive maintenance practices can cut the levelized cost of energy by up to 12%, allowing owner-operators to run more profitability. As traditional energy giants look at long-term strategies to diversify their energy holdings by financing and acquiring renewable projects, wind energy has the opportunity to spearhead this change.
This will be achieved by building a cutting edge digitalized global wind fleet, monitored remotely and maintained using the latest advances in AI underpinned by hard won, real-world engineering expertise.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, but within the crisis there is the potential for wind to fundamentally transform how it operates and bring in a new era of digital efficiency and productivity.
Bruce Hall is CEO of ONYX InSight, which provides unbiased predictive analytics underpinned by real-world engineering expertise, enabling clarity and control over O&M decisions.