By Evgenia Golysheva, VP of strategy and operations, ONYX Insight
Most operators in the wind industry rely on some form of condition monitoring system (CMS) to preserve the operational longevity and high performance of their assets. And it seems to be doing the trick — the implementation of such systems in wind energy has been transformative. Where installed, it has virtually eradicated catastrophic failures and made viable the remoteness inherent to offshore wind.
Alongside the adoption of predictive maintenance, this trend has already saved the global wind industry more than $550 million annually in potential lost revenue and lowered the levelized cost of energy (LCoE) by 1.5%, retaining its pull on investors despite rising costs elsewhere along the value chain.
But this is not enough if operators are to maximize the potential of the turbines in their portfolio and drive the energy transition in the most profitable way possible. A surface-level, tick-box style of condition monitoring, as well as a continued adherence to decisions made years ago about the monitoring strategies and technologies deployed on wind farms today, are slowing the large-scale adoption of sophisticated digitalization. This slowdown risks exposing wind farm owners and operators to greater inflationary pressures.
Wind asset operation is a fast-moving space encompassing a variety of ever more complex financial, mechanical and data-analytical needs, and static long-term approaches do not gel with rapidly evolving business priorities and market conditions. To ensure that condition monitoring continues to deliver optimal value in such a dynamic environment, operators must act now to scrutinize their monitoring strategies during these five key project lifecycle events:
1. End of warranty
The end of warranty (EoW) period typically comes at two to five years into a project’s life. At this point, operators must make critical decisions about how to service their turbines post-warranty. Full scope service agreements, which are comprehensive packages arranged with the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of the turbines in question, have traditionally been viewed as a safe option by operators, due to the former’s assumed understanding of best practices to maintain their own technology.
However, EoW inspections conducted in-house by operators typically do not provide the deep understanding of asset health necessary to negotiate the terms of these servicing packages successfully with OEMs. Inspections have a limited coverage of turbine components, and collecting two years of prior data to prove an asset’s level of performance — and estimate its remaining useful life — is difficult in the best of cases. OEMs will also tend to dismiss EoW claims as normal wear and tear, further obfuscating negotiations.
However, squeezed project margins and growing confidence in turbine technology have led more asset owners to consider alternatives, such as independent vibration-based CMS technologies, and implement them from Day 1. This enables operators to conduct more targeted EoW inspections, bring the most thorough data possible to the negotiating table and catch any looming maintenance issues along the way.
2. Operational stage
OEM service agreements might seem attractive due to short-term cost savings, but they can prove a false economy. OEMs and operations and maintenance (O&M) service providers may not be adequately incentivized to inform customers about impending failures in a timely manner, leading to much higher maintenance fees at the point of eventual breakdown.
Contrast this with third-party independent service providers (ISPs), who must consistently demonstrate value via digital oversight of faults to enable predictive maintenance. During the main operational stage, independent condition monitoring is key for managing asset health. While some owners build in-house monitoring teams, others are increasingly looking to third-party providers with extensive track records and broader data pools. In either case, vibration-based condition monitoring is a proven tool for reducing major component failures.
3. Portfolio growth and diversification
The wind sector is growing fast, which means larger, more complex portfolios for most operators. Companies with portfolios over 1.5 GW are set to increase the capacity they own from 45% to 60% by 2030, with 60% of operators set to manage mixed portfolios of wind and solar assets by 2025.
However, larger global portfolios can overwhelm in-house data analysis teams, to the extent that in-house strategies cease to be cost-effective for large multi-brand portfolios. Partnering with established third-party providers can overcome this bottleneck while enabling in-house teams to focus on delivering high-end value instead of routine daily monitoring.
Larger portfolios also mean operators are more likely to have multiple turbine technologies and CMS within a single fleet. Digital platforms that combine analytics from these varied sources and convert them into unified data sets and actionable maintenance plans unlock untold efficiencies: from the simple IT burden of integrating different technologies, to training staff on different software, to coordinating servicing trips to maximize their effectiveness. The last point is especially true in offshore wind, where turbines are larger and maintenance is more expensive due to marine logistics.
4. Change of O&M contract or mergers and acquisitions
With full scope service agreements beginning to seem less attractive for increasing numbers of asset owners and operators, many are looking to manage costly major component replacements in-house. Condition monitoring is critical to de-risk this transition — with O&M costs cut by up to 30% in the meantime.
Another consideration is mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity. From 2020 to 2021, the total value of M&A deals almost doubled, showing the volume of assets changing hands. A wind fleet with an established CMS, and all the data to show for it, is like a car with a full-service history — it enables owners to justify valuations and gives buyers confidence. Crucially, it can shorten lengthy due diligence processes. Retaining flexibility when contracts change is paramount and frees up capital for the seller.
5. Late stage and life extension
As assets start to age, reliability issues increase, and the business case for monitoring changes again. Owners and operators must not only have a thorough understanding of the condition of towers, foundations and blades but also the remaining useful life of the drivetrain and other replaceable components.
As the wind industry begins to look inward, evaluating its own carbon contribution, there is a clear need to use data to support the recycling of parts, which can save up to 90% of energy during manufacturing compared to using a new part. Monitoring is key to understanding when to take components out of an asset for refurbishment to enable re-use.
Finally, condition monitoring can inform repowering decisions. For example, partial repowering — adding larger generators and blades without replacing structures and other parts such as yaw gears — is popular with operators in the U.S. market, but this can lead to uneven part lives throughout the turbine. Monitoring shows operators the bigger picture to make informed life extension decisions: which parts of the turbine need replacing, and which can run for longer.
Failures to exploit the advantages monitoring brings in these five areas are leaving many owners and operators on the back foot, unable to leverage advances in sensing and analytics that promise huge strides. Condition monitoring is one of the most powerful technologies operators have for transforming asset profitability, removing uncertainty and improving confidence and control over budgeting decisions from beginning to end of the project lifecycle.
Coupled with multiple data streams and an engineering approach, they will be given overarching visibility to make better servicing decisions, contractual negotiations, and scale with greater confidence. There is also technological innovation happening now that will continue over the next ten years, bringing in additional data sources, including blades, pitch bearings, towers and foundations, enabling a more complete picture of asset health.
The key to a successful monitoring strategy is thinking long-term and continuing to invest in comprehensive, proven solutions which deal not just with the challenges wind operators face today, but also those of tomorrow. Future-proofing assets is key to driving profitability and enabling wind to play its critical role in a low-carbon future.
Evgenia has been supporting wind farm owners for over 10 years, focusing on using data to increase the efficiency of wind farm operation, improve asset reliability, and de-risk major maintenance activities. As VP of Strategy and Operations at ONYX Insight, Evgenia looks at changes in the renewables sector driven by global energy transformation, analyses challenges faced by industry players, and supports ONYX in defining future-proof technology solutions for renewables owner-operators worldwide.
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