How small gains become big wins for wind turbine owners

By Martin Hamel | August 14, 2017

The electricity that wind turbines generate is green in more ways than one. As an industry, this environmentally friendly technology is maturing. Demand for it is peaking, and after literally decades of developing and honing the business strategy, wind farm enterprises are finally starting to produce some green for their bank accounts, too.

In North America, the number of wind-harnessing installations has soared in the last decade, second only to China in new builds and megawatts generated. The industry has been ratcheting up to increase revenues for owners, innovating to make turbines more powerful and effective. There has also been pressure to reduce operations-and-maintenance costs to lower overall production expenses.

Once turbines are designed and built, project owners usually focus on operating them at the lowest cost and with the least risk of incurring unexpected expenses. The result is a fleet of turbines that are “online,” but in which operations are geared to meet availability guarantees and limit the maintenance costs of service providers, not maximize the energy production output for owners.

When one digs in and asks the right questions, some interesting findings emerge. Small adjustments to wind turbines can produce big gains, in production and the bottom line. In an operation that’s built to last and generate power for 20 or 30 years, any improvement—even a fraction of a percentage point—can be significant. A small investment in optimizing performance and operations can mean more money in owners’ pockets, and fewer big checks to the operator.

Getting the right information to evaluate is simple. There’s no need to invest in sensors. Wind turbines are equipped with monitors that produce great amounts of valuable data with tremendous granularity. Owners can glean vital stats about speed control/pitch, yaw strategy, start-and-stop policies, and tower foundation dynamics.

Because they're more focused on the big picture, operators consider how the entire array is performing. They can easily overlook small variations and the suboptimal performance of individual units. By examining short intervals of functioning that most operators wouldn’t consider—maybe a minute or less—different patterns and performance levels between and among units become apparent.

These small measurement windows allow wind engineers to see all kinds of opportunities. But monitoring and evaluating them should be done by an independent assessor, one who stands apart from the opposing objectives of owners and manufacturers/operators.

As turbines reach the ends of their warranty periods, engineers have an important part to play. They need to be advocating for their owner-clients, promoting the role of performance analytics and the value of constantly monitoring their systems’ productivity. By identifying solutions, sometimes just minor tweaks that protect and even enhance how the turbines perform, engineers can uncover substantial, quantifiable returns on investment for their clients.

Owner-developers who invest in these assessments tell us the exercise is worth it. Their wind farms perform better, generating more power and better financial returns. And, as more of them take this next step and reinvest in the performance of the installation they already have, they’re contributing to the knowledge bank of the entire wind turbine industry. That’s a positive contribution that benefits everyone—owners, operators and turbine manufacturers alike.