Interview with Michael Wilkinson

“Digitalisation will be the key enabler for decentralised and decarbonised power systems”

With a significant expansion of the renewable energy sector globally, the efficient monitoring and optimisation of renewable assets has become imperative to ensure greater efficiency gains. At the recent launch of DNV GL’s new global operations and analytics centre for renewable assets in Bengaluru, Michael Wilkinson, global segment leader, energy digitalisation, DNV GL – Energy, spoke to Renewable Watch about digitalisation in the renewable energy sector, its scope and the different technologies available in this domain. Excerpts…

How has DNV GL evolved over time?

DNV GL began its journey in the maritime business 150 years ago. Since then, it has grown significantly with multiple mergers, evolving into an organisation different from the one that was founded. We currently operate in maritime, oil and gas, business assurance, digital solutions, and energy sectors. Across this broad spectrum, our role is of an independent technical advisor providing risk management and assurance.

In the energy domain, we have about 2,300 engineers working to provide technical advisory and certification verification. We work across the entire energy value chain including generation (primarily renewable energy generation), transmission, distribution and consumption with our sustainable use and energy management programmes.

What is your outlook on the digitalisation of operations and maintenance (O&M) services in the renewable energy sector?

At DNV GL, we are witnessing a transition from the old world of centralised generation with huge fossil-fuel based plants and long transmission lines to a more decentralised and decarbonised electricity system with embedded renewable energy generation including wind turbines, solar parks and battery technologies.  This will require greater connectivity between generation and consumption. Digitalisation will play the role of an enabler in this evolution.

Digitalisation is about computers, cloud computing and smaller embedded extensions like sensors as well as the data collected from them. It also includes the connectivity between computers and assets made possible by the increasing availability of high speed internet and mobile technologies such as the upcoming 5G technology. Also critical is the ability to interpret that data with artificial intelligence (AI), predictive machine learning along with blockchain, and other niche solutions that allow us to make sense of the data gathered from the ongoing operations.

We forecast that by 2050, 80 per cent of the global electricity will be generated from renewable energy sources. This will include a significant proportion of wind and solar along with small shares of small-hydro and other sources. With increasing renewable generation, people are focusing more on operating these assets efficiently. That is what our global operations and analytics centre aims to achieve by actively managing the performance of renewable energy assets.

In your view is there an active uptake of such technologies for renewable energy operations?

While there is a lot of discussion around it, the uptake of these technologies remains a question mark, and cost is one reason for it. The real advantage of digitalisation is that one is able to do more for less. To this end, with a certain time spent and capital deployed, a solution can be developed and replicated as widely as required.

Does DNV GL offer any product in this domain?

DNV GL acquired GreenPowerMonitor (GPM), a renewable energy software development company based in Barcelona in 2016. The company has developed a new software known as “GPM Horizon”, which is an integrated tool for wind, solar and energy storage. It is aligned with the present trend of asset owners looking for integrated asset portfolio management instead of siloed management of their wind or solar or energy storage assets.

GPM Horizon assists in the easy and quick visualisation of all asset data brought together from a diverse range of technologies and locations to a single location. It will be used by engineers and analysts at our control centre to monitor and operate all assets remotely. Being able to do things remotely is one of the powers of the new digital world.

How has the response been in India towards this product?

We are seeing a lot of interest in the Indian market for this solution. Many players have invested in renewables over the years and their energy yields have been less than expected. These players are the key customers for GPM Horizon as they want proactive monitoring of their projects.

What is your view on the use of drones and robots for the O&M of solar and wind power plants?

These technologies are definitely feasible in the current scenario. Drones are quite practical for use in overhead power line inspection. The traditional way of doing this is quite labour intensive, while drones can cover large distances to carry out the required inspection. Drones make perfect sense for the O&M of solar power plants. Thermal imaging cameras on drones can quickly identify the hotspots on solar modules to spot the defects. Moreover, the cost of deploying drone technology is lower than that for manual labour.

We believe that O&M processes should be as automated as possible. A challenge here is to make sure that one is not just collecting data, but also interpreting it, which would require a connection between data on the digital side and significant domain experience. At DNV GL, we have a large digital presence and a dominant domain presence, and merging the two is our value proposition.

DNV GL is launching an operations and analytics centre in Bengaluru. What will be its core functions?

Our Bengaluru centre will be a platform for our engineers to proactively monitor the operating assets for customers who want greater value from their renewable energy assets. For this, they will make use of GPM Horizon and renewable energy data. We are also deploying our advanced analytical products like “WindGEMINI”, which acts as a digital twin for wind turbines. It takes the load calculations derived from our software called Bladed, and feeds it with renewable energy data. These load calculations are done automatically in real time and presented for analysis. Hence, based on the existing data, a digital twin is created that can predict faults as well as loads. Using this, the remaining life of plant equipment and fatigue can be estimated.

Will such tools assist in generation forecasting as well?

Among the other tools, our analytics centre is equipped with a forecasting tool. It forecasts power generation for the next 24 hours or even shorter time periods. It also helps in the scheduling of maintenance activities during periods of low generation.

In the future, renewable project owners will be operating their assets much more dynamically. With the help of such tools, they will be able to respond to price signals from the grid, generate more power when the prices are high, and curtail or store power when the prices are low. There are multiple parameters that need to be taken into account to achieve this, which is what the analytics centre aims to do – create synergies by bringing everything together.

Going forward, which digitalisation technologies will be the most popular?

AI and machine learning will have a strong transformative impact in the future on all aspects of technology, and especially in the energy industry. With the decrease in the cost of energy, we have to achieve greater automation driven by machine learning and advanced algorithms. New digital solutions are proliferating in the energy industry and AI is already making an impact. However, machine learning in isolation will not suffice, and a combination of the technology with domain experience will be needed to take decisions for renewable assets based on available data.

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