The wind energy sector is at a crossroads. It can incorporate learnings from other energy sectors with respect to the deployment and utilisation of digital technologies such as drones, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) systems for growth and advancement over the coming years. Digitalisation presents several advantages to wind energy systems in terms of improved safety, greater reliability and accuracy in data collection, speedy dissemination of data, lower operational costs and greater flexibility in undertaking maintenance activities. The development of digital technologies for operation and maintenance (O&M) has given rise to new business models in the energy sector due to reduced dependence on human interventions.
At present, North America is leading the way in the adoption of drone technologies in power utilities. Countries in Asia Pacific and South Asia are catching up with the development through enforcement of regulatory frameworks on the utilisation of drones in energy industries. The limitations to mobility and access faced during the pandemic have also reignited a strong will among policymakers, business executives and other stakeholders to improve automated technological solutions. According to a study by Frost & Sullivan, the market for drones in the energy sector is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 23.6 per cent by 2030, with an investment outlay of $515 million.
However, with their tremendous advantages, digital technologies also bring in new security and privacy challenges. The dynamic nature of energy systems demands a constant development of new technologies to keep up with the ever-changing requirements of the sector. Yet, given the rapid push to renewable energy by countries worldwide, it is certain that digitalisation is the future of wind energy. Market participants are thus moving towards developing the software and hardware to provide enhanced operational capacity and competitive advantage to wind developers.
Why digitalisation of wind O&M is the future
Digital technologies are transforming the energy sector. Robots, drones, AI and cloud computing are collectively strengthening the operations and grid resilience in the wind sector. Moreover, the pandemic has shifted the global mindset towards automation and technological solutions. Robotic solutions perform remote inspections, troubleshooting, problem assessments and maintenance procedures. Drones are beneficial in capturing images from vantage points which may not be easily accessible to human beings. Robots and drones also reduce the risks to human life, preventing them from visiting wind energy projects located in remote regions. They also help minimise human errors associated with manual data collection and on-site assessment. Data collected by drones is likely to be more accurate as compared to data collected manually. Drones can hover around turbines covering their entire surface area using digital and/or thermographic cameras. These cameras can capture clear and accurate data regarding defects, corrosion and unsuitable temperatures which may not be obvious to the human eye. Wind turbines are often located in regions with extreme temperatures which may create impediments in the functioning of the turbines. For instance, in colder regions, ice may gather on wind turbine blades, thereby, reducing the efficiency of turbines. In such regions, drones can be fitted with sprinklers for de-icing blades and improving the performance of the wind plants.
Drones also prove to be more time efficient in operations. As per a study by analytics company Nanonets, semi-automated drones are capable of inspecting 10-15 wind turbines in a day as compared to two to three turbines inspected by traditional and conventional methods. With complete automation in inspections, the potential may be further increased to almost 20 turbines per day. While the cost of drones per wind turbine is 20-25 per cent lower than that of manual inspection methods, the overall costs may be higher if the costs of pilots and technicians are factored in.
Further, AI is used to analyse and interpret the potential issues captured in the data while tools such as internet of things help in undertaking immediate response for recovery. On identifying the cause of error, robots can be used to undertake repairs. At present, the development of such automated robots is still at a nascent stage. Cloud computing and 4G/5G facilitate real-time transfer of data from the project site to technicians and project developers. Speedy transfer of data is one of the most crucial aspects of limiting the damage and costs associated with the maintenance of wind energy infrastructure. The adoption of augmented and virtual reality has also provided a medium for technicians to visualise operational scenarios in remote locations.
Digitalisation of O&M practices in the wind energy sector can improve the bankability of wind projects. Given the key role of finance in transforming the renewable energy sector, improving the bankability of wind energy projects will be crucial to incorporate modern digital tools. Wind power assets operated using digital mechanisms can provide adequate data for investors to analyse and assess the planning, operations, risks and predicted returns associated with a particular project. Data-driven insights on grid stability, peak load management, repair response time and overall resilience of the wind power infrastructure can improve investor confidence by helping them determine the financial outcomes of a project. Furthermore, as digitalisation reduces the cost of O&M by enabling flexible and efficient grid operations, investors are likely to prefer projects backed by automated solutions vis-à-vis projects utilising traditional/manual solutions.
Automated solutions are particularly useful in offshore wind farms as they are located away from the coast. This makes undertaking maintenance and assessment with crewed vessels highly expensive, risky and time-consuming. To address these inefficiencies, offshore wind operators are rapidly adopting remote and autonomous robotic solutions.
Automated solutions offer the facility of frequent inspections which is not economically feasible with manual inspections. Robots are ideal for the maintenance of offshore wind infrastructure as they have negligible operational expenditure for operators. In this regard, uncrewed surface vessels are an upcoming technology being developed to perform tasks in remote offshore locations while being operated from distant locations onshore. Uncrewed vessels provide the advantage of reduced direct human interventions in offshore sites, while delivering speedy and high quality insights using cloud-based data dissemination technologies. Since these vessels can operate on hybrid diesel-electric engines, their carbon footprint may be significantly lower as compared to that of crewed vessels.
Digitalisation of the wind sector faces numerous challenges which must be addressed to reap the maximum benefit out of technological advancements. As technological solutions are mostly driven by data, ensuring compatibility and standardisation in data transfer from the project site to different centres would be crucial. When multiple drones are used at a single site, the process of analysing data may become more complex. This would require a special team of technical experts to consolidate and interpret the data accurately. Drones capture large volumes of sensitive data; hence, maintaining security and privacy of the data is a challenge. Regulations for flying of drones should also be laid down and streamlined to prevent safety breaches. Extreme weather conditions such as wind storms, snow and dust may act as a hindrance in the performance of drones and robotics. Another area of concern is the technical readiness of the workforce to operate automated technologies. This issue is particularly pertinent in developing economies such as India, which faces a general lack of a technically skilled workforce. However, this can be achieved using specialised programmes at universities and innovation centres. Despite low and negligent operational costs, digital technologies such as robots and drones may entail high initial investments. Thus, it is also essential to lay an emphasis on studying the performance of different types of technological solutions to ensure that investments in automated solutions yield good returns. As small firms may not be able to meet such initial investments, financial and regulatory support is also essential to bring about widespread digital transformation in the wind power sector. Furthermore, robotic solutions for offshore wind projects require the establishment of a local, on-site facility which can facilitate recharging, safety check-up and data transfer from uncrewed vessels without the need for human intervention. The lack of such facilities will lead to high costs as uncrewed surface vessels will have to travel long distances to reach ports and islands for charging and data transfer services.
The way ahead
The wind energy sector in India has witnessed slow and stagnant growth in the past five years. The country’s wind potential of 695 GW presents tremendous opportunity. The onset of digital solutions can enhance the generation potential further by providing greater efficiency in the O&M of wind projects. Companies should focus on partnerships and collaborations for research and development to improve their market competitiveness. The government must also provide the necessary regulatory and financial support for faster adoption of digital technologies. In the coming years, automation and digitalisation will continue to drive the wind energy sector, enhancing the output and efficiency of wind projects throughout their life cycles.
By Kasvi Singh