By Dominique Verhulst, Global Head of Utilities, Nokia
When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, it was the 15th climate disaster in the United States in 2022 that individually caused billion-dollar damage. Similar evidence of climate change is everywhere. More than 33 million people were impacted by floods in Pakistan this year, and an ozone hole over the Antarctic formed after the 2020 wildfires in Australia.
These are the kinds of events that have countries worldwide pledging to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Spurred by this investment in renewable energy capabilities, wind farm operations continue to expand. According to Global Data, the wind power market has grown at a 14% CAGR over the last decade, giving the industry about 10% of the capacity mix in 2021.
Wind farm challenges
Safety and worker welfare are essential on wind farms, as are operational continuity and cost-efficiency. Yet, offshore wind farms pose unique requirements. Turbine and wind farm sizes are growing, and many are being constructed further from shore. Locations are often remote and conditions harsh, especially given the growing severity of weather events. And hiring is a challenge, as workers must remain offshore for extended periods of time, confined to a vessel for up to two weeks.
This is all driving the demand for digital broadband connectivity and Industry 4.0 technologies available throughout the wind farm. Reliable, broadband wireless networks with data, video and voice capabilities enable new applications and capabilities. Industry 4.0 technologies keep workers, vessels, sensors and operations centers connected, something that satellites cannot deliver in a cost-effective way.
An industry-standard private 4G/LTE wireless network builds on what is already in use at the wind farm. The LTE network connects to onshore communications over the same fiber that is typically used to transmit supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) data from the wind farm to the operations center. The broadband technology complements existing very high frequency (VHF) and Tetra voice communications and replaces an expensive, low bandwidth satellite link as the primary path to shore.
Let’s look at some of the use cases enabled by digital broadband connectivity to address the unique requirements of wind farms, and how this move to private wireless and Industry 4.0 will reshape green energy.
#1: Broadband connectivity is a gamechanger for safety
Many wind farm owners, operators and developers are giving workers the tools to communicate in real-time and transmit large data loads over great distances. Push-to-talk and now push-to-video communication are important between workers at the turbine towers, in helicopters, on-board vessels and onshore.
That’s why wireless connectivity is a gamechanger. Strong, pervasive broadband network connectivity via a private wireless network enables a comprehensive Internet of things (IoT) system that will connect both onshore and offshore personnel – ultimately preserving the safety of wind farm employees.
For workers confined to offshore sites, they now have access to a broader range of telemedicine services. Wearables facilitate the monitoring of worker health at all times and locations throughout the wind farm, rather than just on a vessel. Such comprehensive data allows for a more rapid, appropriate response to an emergency.
#2: Quality of life is a competitive differentiator
Pervasive broadband connectivity onshore and offshore helps wind farms attract and retain employees. Consider that, with 4G/5G broadband service, wind farms can now access bandwidth that is anywhere from seven- to 10-times greater than what is typically available with satellite. This has a noticeable impact on quality of life for workers. During downtime, they can now download movies, access social media and engage in video chats with friends and family back home.
And these types of personal activities – though critical for employee quality of life – will not impact essential services. A private LTE network provides priority for mission-critical operations traffic.
Additionally, the private wireless network can provide high-speed data access to onshore company systems so workers can take care of administrative tasks while offshore, rather than make time for it while onshore. This too can improve work/life balance.
#3: Efficiency drives lower cost of energy
Efficient operations are critical to keeping costs low, and this is another area where pervasive broadband can help. Imagine a technician with access to video at a turbine connected to an onshore or offshore expert. Together, they can more safely and efficiently work through issues and reduce the likelihood that a second dispatch to the turbine will be required.
For field technicians, access to always-on connectivity across the wind farm is ideal when working on top of a nacelle, on a blade, or inside a service vessel. By using a ruggedized handheld, tablet or laptop when conducting inspections, workers can enter notes and video clips about their learnings as they happen, rather than waiting to input this upon their return to the vessel or shore. This will improve the amount and quality of the details. Plus, by immediately making their inspections available to onshore teams, analysis can be done in real time which will improve work scheduling and reduce the number of maintenance trips.
When using drones, a private 4G/LTE network ensures low latency during blade inspections, and the broadband to immediately share this information with onshore teams that can then participate in the analysis. Drones equipped with high-definition cameras can be flown remotely by a pilot from any location connected to the network if local regulations permit, or even pre-programmed to follow a set inspection flightpath. The private network then enables these drones to stream the images back to the operator or control center in real-time, transforming visibility across the entire offshore operation, and enhancing safety and security.
Pervasive broadband access also helps with upskilling workers. They can conduct training and gain relevant certification, during downtime while offshore.
A natural outcome of digitalization is massive quantities of data that need to be collected, processed, and stored. This is where Industry 4.0 technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning come into play. They help to manage asset maintenance programs, upkeep of records, forecasts and weather tracking.
Private wireless networks can also enable performance improvements for the turbines themselves. A whole suite of new sensors and monitoring equipment is currently being developed that will collect valuable operational data, which can then be used with machine learning and artificial intelligence to optimize asset performance. Sensors connected to the private network quickly transfer data, which can be generated multiple times per second on key operating metrics such as structural changes, temperature, acoustics or even lightning detection.
Reshaping green energy
Wind farm operations are bigger and more complex than ever, and they must provide wireless connectivity at speeds far beyond what could have been anticipated even 10 years ago. An industry-standard private 4G/LTE wireless network has become a pre-requisite, offering ubiquitous and persistent connectivity to support the highest levels of safety, worker welfare and efficient operations.
As countries increasingly set their sights on net-zero emission targets, wind farms can turn the tide with digitalization and Industry 4.0 technologies and play a pivotal role in accelerating the adoption of carbon-free, renewable generation.
Dominique Verhulst currently heads up the Global Energy Practice at Nokia. Leveraging Nokia’s full portfolio of Fixed, Mobile, IP & Optical, Applications & Analytics and professional services products including Bell-Labs consultancy, Dominique and his team provide complete end to end solutions to Utilities, Oil & Gas and Mining companies. He is the author of the “Teleprotection over Packet Networks” e-book available on the iTunes bookstore, and co-author of several publications from the University of Strathclyde. He has over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications networking industry, holding senior sales and marketing positions at Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Newbridge Networks, Ungermann-Bass and Motorola.
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