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Analysis - Software projects cranks up turbine capacity

US: At a time when wind turbine vendors are logging fewer new orders, some are creating innovative upgrade services to bring in new business from their existing operational fleet.

GE Energy has rolled out a software upgrade to sell to the owners of the thousands of its GE 1.5MW operating turbines. WindBoost promises to run the wind turbine faster in certain conditions to squeeze an extra 100kW out of the machine, effectively turning existing 1.5MW units into 1.6MW units.

When developers choose a wind turbine for a certain location, they do so after a close analysis of specific site conditions. This goes beyond just average wind speed to include wind shear and terrain effects, air density, air temperatures and so on. Every wind turbine has a certain range of environmental and site factors that are considered within its so called design envelope.

For example, some units are better for lower-wind-speed sites and others for high-wind-speed sites. All tend to operate in the middle range of their design envelope, says Jeff Wiener, global sales and commercial manager for GE Wind Services.

"We designed this software package that looks at those factors," he says. "If you have the right environmental conditions, it will have the generator run faster and generate an extra one hundred kilowatts."

Installation takes less than a day, and then the system can operate by itself. It monitors for the right conditions and turns the extra generation on and off automatically, or can be triggered from a remote operations centre. "It's just using the existing design envelope more efficiently," says Wiener. "This translates to $6000-$12,000 per unit per year of added revenue and does not impact normal operations and maintenance, turbine lifecycle or warranty provisions."

It is like upgrading a vehicle's computer chip to one designed to squeeze out higher performance. But like a car that is run at higher performance levels, WindBoost may run down the turbine's overall lifecycle quicker, says one of GE's competitors, Lawrence Willey, operations and maintenance vice-president for Clipper Windpower.

GE kicked off the launch of its WindBoost with a big first order. NextEra Energy has agreed to upgrade its fleet of approximately 800 GE 1.5MW wind turbines. Theoretically, this is like NextEra adding an 80MW wind plant to its assets. WindBoost is designed only for GE's 77-metre rotor SLE model and not its lower-wind-speed 82.5-metre XLE model. There are approximately 13,500 GE 1.5MW units installed worldwide, the majority being SLE models. GE will not reveal the price of its WindBoost package.

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