Wind turbine asset optimisation: getting things done

Asset managers, operations engineers, service technicians, and performance managers….all roles that are typically involved in the task of ensuring that a fleet of wind turbines operates well, producing the maximum possible energy yield. Another thing that all these roles have in common, is that all are complex, require excellent multitasking skills and often involve working under high pressure. Typically, such resources are consumed by dealing with immediate, urgent and high priority topics that need to be taken care of in order to keep the turbines running whilst ensuring that daily business is taken care of. 

With this in mind, how do we make sure that sufficient attention is given to achieving longer term, strategical goals such as ensuring that all turbines in the fleet are correctly configured and aligned, or optimising service activities to ensure that repairs are performed during periods of low winds or low energy prices? Or performing preventative repair on a major component to avoid complete system failure and the resulting costs and downtime?  

Many independent consultancies and software providers promise to take care of such issues using advanced analytics, big data and AI to generate insights concerning the operational state of the assets. But the challenge here is not only in turning data into insights, but also turning insights into value.  

Value generation is a tricky business. The basic version is, the total investment in any specific activity must exceed the cost, with the latter consisting of both the direct cost and also the opportunity cost (i.e. the cost of not doing something else with the available resources). 

If this is achieved, then we could say that we have a positive business case for the activity in question. However, what do we do when the volume of work that shows a potential positive business case exceeds all of the resource currently available? This is exactly the situation that regularly occurs in wind turbine operations. Assigning yet more state-of-the-art technology to the task of detecting and diagnosing yet more faults and deficits in our operational fleet, providing yet more insights, will not resolve this resource problem.

In the long term, organisations may adjust to this situation by hiring additional staff, buying additional tools and benefiting from a positive return on such investment due to the underlying gains that can be made. However, such a scale-up of optimisation activities takes time, requiring first that the organisation recognises and quantifies the potential gains, finds and trains the required staff and fully implements the best technologies and processes.

In the short term, it is unavoidable that value will be left on the table. Wind turbine failures will occur that could have been detected and prevented, production will be lost due to misaligned blades or yaw misalignment, unnecessary environmental curtailment will be incurred due to incorrect measurement of ambient conditions such as wind speed and direction and so on. Frustrating, but not entirely avoidable.

So how can we ensure that we still get the most out of our fleets, despite such real-world resource constraints? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Prioritisation

There is a lot to be said for focusing on “low hanging fruits”. Issues should be prioritised that yield maximum impact at minimum effort. Impact can be measured in terms of increasing financial revenue due to increased production, avoiding downtime due to component failures or reducing operational costs. However, such prioritisation can be complex and may require an understanding of a large number of boundary conditions such as the age of a specific turbine or wind farm, the current price at which energy is sold from the asset, the details of any maintenance contracts in place and the remaining level of risk exposure given the likely inclusion of a time-based or production-based availability guarantee. A well performing organisation with “smart operations” processes in place will be able to quickly recognise the highest value opportunities even given such complex boundary conditions, allowing prioritisation of issues to be performed quickly and accurately.

2. Volume 

When assigning additional tasks to already heavily loaded service organisations, it is important to plan a realistic amount of work to be performed in a specified timescale. Bottlenecks are likely to exist due to limited availability of key personnel both internally (e.g. at the turbine owner or operator) and externally (e.g. within the service team of the independent service provider or turbine manufacturer). It does not make sense to continuously “force” additional tasks into blocked workflows, this results in increased stress levels for all involved and typically only serves to reduce overall performance.

3. Transparency 

When asking individuals and organisations to respond to specific work requests such as the inspection of a component or a modification to the control strategy in a wind turbine, it is important that all stakeholders have a full understanding of what is being asked of them, the justification for this request and the expected gain. Such transparency serves to keep motivation high and reduces the amount of time lost in discussion on the rational for investing scarce resources into such strategically important, but potentially less urgent tasks.

4. Completion

Get things done, rather than do lots of things! It is of great importance that tasks are seen through to completion, since value is only created at the end. For example, performing a detailed study on the amount of energy production lost due to unnecessary curtailment will not avoid future losses. Completing compensation claims for lost production from the responsible third-parties, or modifying operational strategy to reduce the level of curtailment applied to extend the life of damaged components…such activities generate real returns and true value. Getting things “over the line” is often the hardest part of any optimisation project or process. But a tenacious approach is needed here; pursuing five issues to completion will generate many times more value than juggling 20 issues simultaneously and completing none of them.

Long term, strategical optimisation of wind turbine fleets is an area in which we as an industry are still learning. However, supporting technology is improving rapidly and owners and operators are also increasing their understanding of asset management with an emphasis on maximisation of financial returns over the asset lifetime. In a fast-growing industry, one of the keys to success in the short term will be in making the best use of available resources to ensure maximum value generation.