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GE puts the case for 'digital wind farm'

IN-DEPTH: GE believes its Digital Windfarm collection of products can boost a project's annual energy production (AEP) by up to 20%.

Starting point… GE’s 2MW turbine platform can be pushed up to 2.4MW
Starting point… GE’s 2MW turbine platform can be pushed up to 2.4MW

But while analysts say that the portfolio does offer real value in mining the margins of performance, the product range seems more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Digital Windfarm, launched during the American Wind Energy Association's annual Windpower conference in May, consists of GE's newest wind turbines, predictive analytics, and performance optimisation controls. Most suitable for projects of 25MW and larger, it is being targeted at markets such as the US, Brazil and India. "I think this is the future of wind technology. It's transformational," GE's head of renewables Anne McEntee told Windpower Monthly.

The product range pairs turbines with operating system software, Predix. One of the system's advantages is that third-party software applications can be developed for its interface. The portfolio also incorporates a "digital twin" hologram for pre-build modelling and optimising operations.

The 2MW turbine platform's output can be increased to as high as 2.4MW - with the same nacelle. Tower heights are 80 metres or 94 metres and rotor diameters 107 metres or 116 metres. Twenty different mix-and-match configurations are possible, said Keith Longtin, general manager for wind products at GE Renewable Energy.

The variable-megawatt strategy is unique, said Aaron Barr of Make Consulting. The single nacelle eases assembly, spare parts supply, inventory management and service training. But turbine delivery will be more complex, and independent engineers will have to carry out far more complicated technical due diligence for a project.

Components will have been designed to withstand the higher megawatt rating. "This strategy will result in some excess design margin for some variants and may add some cost to some components," said Barr. This should be partially offset by supply-chain economies of scale.

Alstom has a mix-and-match offering with PowerOf3 for its ECO 100 platform. Yet actual adoption has been "very limited", according to Make. "Gamesa, Vestas and Siemens have all marketed their ability to use multiple turbines on a single site, but haven't formalised a product offering," Barr added.

GE's product range may already have a customer. US developer and owner-operator Invenergy, a longstanding GE customer, was negotiating a purchase in mid-June.

GE's modularity is most useful for complex terrain, and many remaining sites in the US are flat. But a site may include a transformer or power line, or be odd-shaped due to leasing issues, Longtin countered.

With this product range, GE will monitor, harvest and leverage big data more than before. GE's super-computing power is immense as, for example, is Vestas'.

Terrain modelling

As part of its new offering, GE will conduct pre-build advanced micro-siting using computational fluid dynamics (CFD). "Terrain modelling, CFD and mesoscale wind modelling ... have become standard practices for complex terrain, said Barr. "Adding more turbine variants will complicate the micro-siting optimisation and require more engineering support, but the modelling fundamentals exist today." GE is launching an analysis service for wind-farm operations, including non-GE turbines, as part of the service.

According to Longtin, Predix's continuous automated condition monitoring uses sub-second data for some of its algorithms, while the industry has typically analysed operations using ten-minute average data. However, Make's Barr said all OEMs offer condition monitoring, and take-up of higher-resolution data has been limited because of storage requirements and the head count needed for rigorous analysis.

Analysis by any OEM raises the sensitive issue of sharing data with operators. "The industry remains very secretive with operational and failure data," noted Barr.

Predix — which comes in a "Cloud Connect" box and is available as a six-month trial — will not be sold without GE's analytics service at present. But GE will soon open up Predix so that others can develop apps, a unique tack for an OEM.

The product range's advertised up-to-20% AEP improvement comprises a 10% increase when comparing GE's 1.7-100 turbine with a 2.0-116, and another 10% from Cloud Connect because of improved micro siting, turbine operations and GE's already-released PowerUp upgrade.

Since PowerUp gives an AEP hike of up to 5%, the new elements in Digital Windfarm can increase AEP by up to 15%, of which two-thirds can largely be accounted for by an increased rotor swept area.

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