By John Durels, Regional Director
EDF Renewables North America
The U.S. energy industry is undergoing dramatic changes. As concerns about climate change grow, demand for clean, cost-effective renewable energy sources like wind and solar has increased. Onshore wind capacity in the U.S. is projected to quadruple from 105 gigawatts1 (GW) today to more than 400 GW by 20502, and solar is on an even steeper trajectory. By 2050, 35-50 percent of U.S. electricity could be sourced from renewables3.
As these technologies become more commonplace, the systems used to monitor and run them have also evolved, as have the markets for the energy they produce. As a result, field service—which in the energy industry is typically known as operations and maintenance, or O&M—is significantly more sophisticated and complex than it was even 10 or 15 years ago.
O&M is about accomplishing two objectives: maximizing the operations of a power plant and performing scheduled and corrective maintenance to ensure it runs at full capacity for its life cycle. What’s changed—or more accurately, revolutionized—O&M in the renewable energy industry is a digital transformation that delivers in-depth analytics. Today, we can capture data that didn’t exist back in the dark ages at the beginning of the last decade and run powerful analyses that yield a wealth of actionable information.
For example, we used to rely almost exclusively on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to run wind and solar facilities. The relatively limited information provided was our only real source of visibility into how the asset was performing. Nowadays, the only thing we use SCADA for is to start, stop and reset wind turbines or get notification that a turbine has stopped on its own.
For everything else, from monitoring production and evaluating performance, to diagnostics and troubleshooting, we have a range of digital platforms that give us real-time data, and in some cases, give assets the ability to self-analyze and diagnose issues. An ancillary benefit is that the data streams generated by assets can be fed into an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) program like SAPand linked to material consumption, which in turn can assist with predictive analysis.
EDF Renewables has also created powerful dashboards that offer tremendous visibility and information awareness. In addition, the advent of mobile devices with significant processing power provide field technicians the ability to access original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) knowledge databases of lessons learned, which contain vast amounts of information regarding specific faults, that can assist with troubleshooting.
Another emerging trend is the use of virtual reality, which make it possible for field technicians and operation center staff to collaborate on problem solving. This direct, albeit virtual connection with the operations center, gives technicians access to resources and support for data analysis and schematic reviews.
Digitization has also had a profound impact on revenue generation. Today’s energy markets are as sophisticated and complex as the stock market, with dynamic and sometimes volatile pricing that can change by the minute, a wide range of participants, and an even wider range of financial instruments and contractual arrangements. In this brave new world, capturing maximum revenue is now an art as well as a science, and precision field service is critical.
Last but not least, no discussion of technology can sidestep the issue of cybersecurity. Grid-connected electrical generation assets in the U.S. and Canada are required to conform with standards established by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which works to ensure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the electrical grid. Complying with these standards can introduce additional challenges because accessing the generation asset data cannot compromise the integrity of the system.
To a certain extent, the impacts of technological advancement and digitization affect all forms of electrical generation, whether renewable or not. A key feature that sets renewables like wind and solar apart is intermittency, and particularly in the case of wind turbines, the assets can be dispersed across thousands of acres. As such, the impacts are deeper and more transformational.
Smart data analytics, that are automated and offer good communications and notifications, are vital to capture revenue and deliver reliability for owners and consumers. As the amount of installed renewable energy increases and transmission improves, intelligent grids will be key to enable the efficient, cost-effective delivery of clean power to support our nation’s ambition to decarbonize the grid. By truly revolutionizing the way field service is performed and what can be achieved, data analytics present an opportunity to take this industry deep into the 21st century.