Wind Turbines: An eye on the technical management

Thu, 09/11/2017 - 14:30

The 0&M control centre keeps an eye on customers’ wind farms 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Photo: BayWa r.e.)

The technical management is responsible for the smooth technical operation of a wind farm. As the tasks become more complex, however, the cost pressures rise as well.

Monitoring, intervention, evaluation, inspection – these keywords provide just a short description of the most important tasks of technical management. It is clear that a wind farm can only generate electricity when the wind is blowing, but trying to make use of every movement of the air and keeping the turbines in constant technical readiness – this is the responsibility of round the clock technical management.

“More and more tasks have been added to the field of technical management in the last few years,” says Torsten Flemming, authorised officer and commercial manager at deanBV. Reporting obligations and the monitoring of permit conditions such as bat or shadow management are within his remit, for example. A further important subject is taking on responsibility for the turbines. According to DIN VDE 0105-100/EN 50110, which regulates the operation of electrical systems, each of these systems must be under the responsibility of an electrically qualified person (electrician) for any work done which concerns an electrical element. Because the turbine operator does not always have this qualification, he may pass on these tasks to the operations manager. “The operator is liable as the responsible party to the turbine,” stresses Sven Harder, head of technical management at Westwind, “but this is often neglected.”

A smartphone instead of a clipboard

An important point when keeping an eye on costs is the increasing level of digitalisation – so much so that individual operations managers such as the company Dirkshof are even already employing their own software developers. Ever-more operations managers are no longer sending their employees out to turbine inspections with a clipboard and a digital camera, but with smartphones and the relevant apps. “Faults at the turbines can be flagged up immediately and loaded into the monthly report,” explains Wiebke Wiechering from the Oldenburg-based company Windpunx. In this way photos can be directly categorised, transfer errors can be avoided and the process is faster as well. Many operations managers also enable their customers to have real-time data access to their turbines.

This means that more and more data from individual turbines is being gathered, which may play an important role in the future. Those receiving feed-in tariffs from the earlier EEG days do not necessarily need to know which of their turbines in a farm is generating what amount of electricity, but this has changed with the tendering model. Here bids are made relative to a 100 % reference site. How the individual site deviates from this leads to a higher or lower remuneration. However, the true yields must be accounted for at a turbine-specific level every five years. Depending on whether the farm runs better or worse than envisaged, the operator may receive money or have to pay some back.

wpd windmanager is the first operations manager in Germany to acquire a cable test van. (Photo: wpd)

Data security becomes an issue

At the same time, the trove of data also provides the operations managers with the opportunity of improved forecasts. “The more data and fault parameters we can glean and evaluate from individual turbines, the better we can tell where damage could occur next and thus act accordingly beforehand,” says Axel Lembke from BayWa r.e..

Wherever more and more data is gathered, the subject of data security also plays an increasingly important role. “There is certainly a risk from hackers,” says Lembke: “Here we must provide secure communication solutions and already have such on offer.” Especially in terms of the visibility and security of the farms on the Internet, the operations managers are being called on to close gaps left by the manufacturers. “Unfortunately, many operators do not wish to spend much money on this, although inexpensive solutions are available,” says Lembke: “But it would not be good for the image of the sector if wind farms went down or even caused blackouts as a result of hacker attacks.”

Gathering, evaluating and archiving data is also an important prerequisite for continued operation. The original type testing, which was carried out for approvals before construction, set a lifetime of 20 years as the baseline. If the operator wishes to continue operating a turbine beyond this period, it must be able to prove the safe operation of the turbine. This can be financially advantageous, as the EEG set down in the year 2000 that all wind turbines in operation back then could receive the EEG tariff for a further 20 years. In order to be able to have the necessary appraisal carried out, the operator must be able to provide the most important documents and data relating to the turbine. After the year 2020 there will be no more EEG-tariffs for these turbines, however, and new calculations will have to be made. “If no major changes are made to the electricity market in the meantime, then a continued operation beyond 20 years will generally only be possible at very good sites and with very much reduced administrative costs,” says Marcus Brian, press spokesperson at Das Grüne Emissionshaus. Accordingly, the costs for maintenance and repairs must be limited to the essentials and organised as efficiently as possible.

Smaller providers face tough challenges in terms of the multitude of tasks, says Lembke. BayWa r.e. has thus set up a partner network to open up its structures to smaller operations managers. “We want to exchange services on the one hand and pass on qualifications to the partners on the other,” Lembke adds. An operations manager could call up services from the control centre of the Munich company, for example, but also possibly carry out on-site work at turbines belonging to BayWa r.e.; “After all, the wind power sector wants to be taken seriously as a reliable and safe power plant operator,” says Lembke.  

Smaller operators stress on the other hand, however, that they are particularly flexible because of their lean structures and are better able to administer their controlling function by working together with external service providers. “We do not provide any maintenance and repair work using our own personnel and can thus always broker for the customer an independent and inexpensive offer by specialists,” stresses Torsten Flemming from deanBV. And Sven Harder from Westwind stresses: “Unaffiliated operations managers are independent and are thus in a better position to carry out their controlling function for the service providers and manufacturers.”

“In the last few years more and more tasks have been added to the field of technical management,” says Torsten Flemming, authorised officer and commercial manager at deanBV (Photo: deanBV)

And what about the future? The prospects are not good, partly because many operations managers expect a consolidation within the sector as a result of the growing cost pressures. The first effects can already be seen: “I get the impression that manufacturers reducing employee numbers and closing sites is causing competent contacts to be lost, and activities are only moving forward slowly,” criticises Harder. At the same time, competition is growing; grid operators are taking over the complete control of their wind farms themselves and project developers are trying to set up a new field of business. Additionally, the trend in paying for operations management is moving away from a percentage share of electricity yields towards a fixed fee model.

And a further trend was also uncovered by our survey; the “classical” separation between the technical management, which contracts out and monitors service and maintenance tasks, and the maintenance companies which perform such tasks, is crumbling. Although there are still operations managers that decline such a merging, more and more companies are offering both and are thus contracting themselves. Whether this will benefit the operators remains to be seen.

Katharina Wolf