Times have changed for the wind industry. What began as a slow moving, clean-energy sector picked up speed during the last few years. From 2000 to 2008, installed wind capacity grew at a modest rate to about 25 GW in the United States. But as Keith Day, President of E.ON Energy Services, pointed out during a keynote presentation at the recent O&M Dallas 2016 conference, in the last seven years installed wind capacity has tripled to 75 GW. Day challenged the industry to align interests of service providers and turbine owners as the only way forward to meet the demands of this future growth.
“Just think of some of the ramifications,” he said. “Wind-farm owners have had to face quality control and supply chain issues, while keeping up with new equipment and a shortage of personnel.” Day said that what began as a focus on development and new wind projects has turned into a challenge of maintaining those projects. “Developers were solely focused on installing turbines and it’s only been fairly recently, gigawatts of wind-power later, when many have woken up to realize they’re now also operating and caring for those turbines.”
Day said that to succeed in the future, wind-farm owners and operators must face increasingly complex decisions in forming connection with partners, hiring and training a reliable workforce, and maintaining and repairing equipment that was supposed to last 20 years without a problem.
“Market prices are at all-time lows and incentives are being reduced or phased out, so owners are paying closer attention to their bottom line and evaluating how to reduce operating expenditures,” he said. “Owners are also being smarter about how and with whom they spend their hard-earned money.”
Looking ahead to the next seven years, wind power is forecast to double again from 75 GW to 150 GW in 2023. “That means tens of thousands of new turbines and twice the number of wind technicians if not more,” said Day. “So how do we plan for this?”
According to Day, those in the wind industry have to begin looking at things differently and more proactively. “There’s no question the industry will be faced with challenges in the near future. There’s no question the operations portion of the industry will be dramatically affected. To face these challenges successfully, we have to work collaboratively as an industry and come together.”
He pointed out that the average tenure of a wind technician is only five years in the U.S. “That’s a lot of training, turnover, lost knowledge, and expense. Yet if we look to Europe, the average length of a wind technician’s career is nine years, so why is that? What can we learn from them?” Day suggested the wind industry should begin sharing information that could strengthen its workforce and operations.
“We also have to look at the wind turbines. Just because you buy turbines from one vendor doesn’t mean the equipment isn’t changed or upgraded. It may require new ways of troubleshooting or completely new technologies. An aging fleet also means ongoing O&M and possible replacement issues,” he said. “We’ll see more O&M activity than we have in the past, and issues will become more complex not less.”
So how do we ensure productive wind farms in a rapidly changing marketplace? Day said it is important to first consider current market conditions and evaluate potential future outcomes. “It starts with important questions,” he said, and listed these points to consider.
• Reduced operating expenditures in difficult market conditions. “How many owners have wind farms signed up on 20-year PPAs?” he asked. “With the current low-market prices, how does that affect your decision-making process and what you’re going to do and not do on your wind farm?” Day said balancing wind-farm production and maintenance expenses are going to be an ongoing issue over the next 10 years.
• Phasing out incentives. Incentives, such as the production tax credits (PTC), are being reduced over the next few years. “So how is that going to affect the industry, and how are owners going to plan for O&M expenses in the future – and not just on a trajectory of growth and development, but I mean in terms of maintaining those turbines we already have installed?” asked Day.He then asked the audience to imagine wind-farm assets in 10 years when the PTC has expired. “Today you may be getting that wind farm and that $20 power from PTCs, but with it comes a sense of false security. Think about transmission in 10 years out when technology is older and the PTC with your $20 power is gone, and your financial backer says, ‘Hey, let’s go for an hedge. But what’s the right decision?’” Day advised owners to think about the long-term ramifications of decisions made today. “What seems like an easy decision could end up costing you in the long-run instead of helping you.”
• Changing requirements for wind generation (especially if it becomes a larger share of the supply curve). Change is inevitable, but we’re in a time of uncertainty for policies related to wind power. For instance, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (policy for reducing carbon pollution from power plants) may or may not come into affect . “It’s uncertainty so we still don’t know. Maybe new policies will impact the industry going forward and some policies will be made retroactive,” said Day. “If so, how do we assess our wind assets?”
• Loss of support for turbine models. “We’ve seen this already in Europe where turbine parts and models come and go. People are in the business and then out,” he said. “But it is important to keep control of what’s available and what’s not to keep costs down.”
As it stands today, the wind industry does not control costs well, according to Day. Three things are worth focusing on to enhance profitability in the future.
1. Developing a reliable workforce. This involves creating set standards and minimum training requirements in certain sectors that includes safety and data sharing between companies. “It’s like we’re in year 10 of a 100-year industry and there is still so much room for growth,” said Day. “There are many older industries such as aerospace and automotive, in which they share important information within the industry to advance it. Wind is still maturing, but we have to come together as a team to address some of these issues.”
2. Planning for change. “How many of you have had a notification from an OEM that says that company is not making a certain type of blade anymore?” Day asked the audience. These are the types of questions owners and operators should consider now rather than later. “Is retrofitting cost-effective? Do we shut down damaged or aging turbines and use them for parts? Ideally, it’s important to keep wind turbines running because the interconnections and substations are already there, and so is our investment. But collectively, these are the questions and issues we have to identify now to keep costs from going higher.”
Another example Day provided was software upgrades. “Have any of you been told your wind-farm software is no longer supported?” Instead of signing up for the next option, Day and his team at E.ON created their own alternative. “We decided to look at other options, and developed a solution that’s a fraction of the cost of what’s out there.” Of course this isn’t feasible for every company, but Day said it’s important to know there are options and often, more cost efficient than the status quo.
3. Working together for greater transparency. “If the industry is going to double the number of technicians and mature in the next seven years how do we ensure that owners and service providers hire quality workers?” asked Day. This might seem as if he is referring back to his first point on developing a reliable workforce but, in this case, he is also talking about a way to streamline certain processes in the wind industry. “Hiring takes work. It is time-consuming and expensive. But there is a wide discrepancy in safety training and documentation, so at E.ON we re-do basic training to make sure that what’s on a resume is the truth. Safety is fundamental.”
Day added that the industry would benefit from greater transparency and some sort of minimum standards or requirements. “Certification would reduce time and costs for owners, but would also benefits technicians by increasing their skill value and employability. We want technicians to grow to become seniors, supervisors, and future VPs. So why not give them a valid starting point?”
The need for collaboration is also important. “To take this industry to the next level, we must work together to find ways to operate better, faster, and cheaper. This means greater collaboration.” For example, NextEra recently shared its experiences with E.ON on using a self-lifting crane at wind sites. “In turn, we shared information with them when they went to purchase one of their own cranes, which helped save 20%. Sometimes it’s cranes or simply finding better parts, pumps, software, or what have you. But why not share this information as an industry? This is not a new concept in other industries.”
To end his presentation, Day provided part of the Electric Power Research Institute’s mandate, which states: “The EPRI provides guidelines, tools, and technologies to mange the critical components that represent the majority of availability loss and maintenance expenses.”
“Now doesn’t that sound that something we’re all looking for as an industry?” asked Day. “What does it matter who developed what if it helps us all do our jobs better? The wind industry has much maturing to do, but I believe we can start by simply working more openly together.”
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