Viewpoint: Are we ready for the future of onshore wind?

As the first wave of turbine models to truly prove themselves on a global scale begin to hit the sad inevitability that is the end of their design life, now is a good time to reflect on what we have learned over the past 25 years or so and consider what we need to take into the next 25 years.

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Wind-turbine technology has matured so successfully that market support mechanisms — specifically subsidies — are beginning to drop away.

Wind power, particularly onshore, is increasingly expected to go toe-to-toe with the more traditional generation sources.

This is success and we should celebrate it, but with it come smaller margins and a greater need to examine the details. Are we ready for this onshore wind future?

In which half are you?

From single-turbine owner to global utility, the challenge for all wind-farm owners is how to be sure they are getting the best value from their assets.

Experience shows that most believe their sites are being run to a high standard.

Of course, it’s impossible for every site to be better than average, so the implication is that for half of us, we are actually underperforming compared to the industry average.

As we make the transition to subsidy-free generation — and ultimately direct trading on the power market — the danger for settling on "good enough" performance is clear.

Maximising the value from everything spent to operate will be crucial for success, and being lazy with our margins will be a direct threat to that success.

Understanding the detail of operations, and how those details interact to shape the bigger picture, brings greater understanding of our specific strengths and weaknesses.

Knowing what is needed to move from good enough to best requires deep operational experience, with direct knowledge of control systems, turbine design, software development, performance management, solutions integration, data analytics, technology innovation, supply chain development, socio-economic impacts and business strategy.

Every owner and operator has the opportunity to make changes that will result in financial gain — whether it is better change management, improved analytics, derisking of fund investments or quicker implementation of technology-improvement plans.

Increased understanding also makes us more agile and puts us in a better position to adjust things when bigger disruptions come our way.

Digitalisation

There is a lot of focus on digitalisation these days, and rightly so. Data and automation will have a large part to play in maximising our efficiency.

Data analytics already play a key role in improving performance. Turbines gather more data on themselves than ever before.

Controllers are smarter, condition monitoring is standard technology, there are any number of "portfolio" solutions that aim to make your life as a multi-project, or indeed multi-technology, asset owner easier and smarter.

Ultimately, however, these are just new ways of meeting old challenges in a quicker and more effective way.

We still have to decide which of the many challenges and opportunities we have on our turbine, site, portfolio or company, which one offers the best strategic and/or financial gain.

For digitalisation to really make a difference, the key is not simply analysing more data — it is ensuring we capture the right data in the first place.

It is not simply about capturing more information on work orders but ensuring that the process of capturing that data also results in more technician "wrench time".

Rather than simply measuring more detailed wind characteristics, we need to ensure that detail results in better control, lighter designs and longer life, increasing energy yield and reducing the levelised cost of energy.

There are solutions for everything, but we are unlikely to pick the right ones if we have not taken the time to fully formulate the problem in the first place.

It is easy to become obsessed with technology and to develop a fear of missing out. Don’t! Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Apply some standard strategy tools to your business processes.

Look at your operations and maintenance regime through the lens of total-value management or continuous improvement. Use a third party for that external view, to bring a different set of skills and experience.

The path to the future already exists. We have the map and compass in our hands. We just need to learn how use them.

Graham Gow is an associate director at BVG Associates

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