Turbine availability begins at home
With all the various and uncontrollable causes of turbine downtime that wind park owners and operators are all too familiar with, there remains a frequently overlooked, entirely manageable cause of turbine downtime: the operations and maintenance (O&M) team.
The most important issue for any wind park operator is to ensure the turbines are available when the wind is on. As wind parks proliferate and turbine technology becomes increasingly complicated, the shortage of qualified wind energy technicians is taking a significant toll on downtime. The stress on O&M that leads to turbine downtime takes many forms. Insufficient training, poor employee motivation, engineering problems, over-complicated and over-controlled procedures, lack of a sense of urgency, as well as the O&M team's failure to apply an appropriate attention to detail.
"For years I drove past a wind park that always had many machines off. I assumed that the turbine had a bad design and that that was the reason for such poor operations. Ten years later, and I am now running that wind park with a team of my technicians. The problem was not design. It was operator motivation".
Jack Wallace Jr.
The most important success factor for any wind park operator is turbine availability – when the wind is blowing, the blades must be turning. The cost of downtime from O&M inefficiencies can be difficult to calculate. The difference is often hidden; meaning that many days of wind can hide one day of a turbine being off line.
However, these outages add up to significant lost revenue when averaged over the course of a year or the lifetime of the wind park. Wind parks that deliver superior financial returns typically have well-trained, highly motivated O&M teams that are driven by incentives crafted to ensure the blades will turn whenever the wind is blowing.
As a wind technician and field consultant for more than 20 years, I have heard and seen some mind-boggling and maddening things. Once a few years ago, I was discussing a customer's O&M challenges with him, and he told me in all sincerity that “wind is our enemy.” That was as backward and disheartening a thought as I could imagine!
So, I began to talk with him and his team further to understand what had them all so frustrated. I discovered that they were understaffed or staffed with unqualified people, and that the O&M team's efforts were unappreciated insofar as their often times extraordinary service efforts were not acknowledged or recognised in anyway.
Unrecognised for their work to keep the turbines up (or down!), their motivation to answer middle of the night calls to reset faults was clearly waning – and wind had become the enemy.
It is true that a good portion of downtime on wind parks is related to the engineering of the wind turbine. Major component failures are usually not the fault of an O&M team. If a wind turbine component is poorly engineered, it will make itself known very quickly to those in the wind industry.
About the only area of design that allows field efforts to affect reliability is in the control system. Today's wind turbine control systems can be over stacked with complexity. The turbine controllers are over protective, complicated and not user-friendly. Such controllers make troubleshooting difficult, especially if the wind turbine's theory of operation is not made bluntly evident.
But if you have a specific wind turbine, or wind park, then that is what you get. That decision is a 20-50 year decision. It is final. In all probability no one is going to be replacing that turbine with another design anytime soon. So, the wind park operator needs to change his mindset from the list of problems inherent in the turbine's design to creating a best-in-class operations plan for keeping the turbines running. Eventually the engineering problems will be worked out, and all that will be left to fix will be up to you.
For years I drove past a wind park that always had many machines off. I assumed that the turbine had a bad design and that that was the reason for such poor operations. Ten years later, and I am now running that wind park with a team of my technicians. The problem was not design. It was operator motivation. The operator did not try very hard. Today, that same wind park is now operating in its 23rd year, and running well.
Maybe the manufacturer will help you get the machines running, maybe they won't. Regardless, the reputation of your wind park is up to you. You know if you are trying or not, and so do your co-workers. Making the machines run is priority one. Yes, it's challenging work; but it is the work of the O&M team. We are not talking wind turbine efficiency here. We are talking about reliability and run time. If you can keep them running in wind then you are doing your job. All incentives, recognition, processes and procedures must be in line with this fundamental objective: the wind turbines must be available when the wind is on.
As far as efficiency problems go, they are engineering problems and have to be built in. If you find yourself with time to worry about efficiency – that is icing on the cake. The bulk of the problem, though, is ensuring the turbines are running.
I have worked with many different types of wind turbines. The number one cause of nuisance faults causing downtime are controller issues. Once you have the controllers working properly, then the next most common cause of downtime is technician-related.
Controllers for wind turbines are becoming major technical innovations. Turbines are using controllers with thousands of parameters. Any little burp causes the entire machine to shut off requiring a reset, either remotely or an onsite reset. If it is the end of the day, windy, and a turbine is off, you need your technicians to go out and look at the machine. This is the difference between the turbine being off for 1 hour or overnight for 15 hours.
"Wind parks that deliver superior financial returns typically have well-trained, highly motivated O&M teams that are driven by incentives crafted to ensure the blades will turn whenever the wind is blowing".
Jack Wallace Jr.
More and more wind park O&M teams are not accepting the responsibility for ensuring that the turbines are running. As wind parks go mainstream and qualified technicians become scarce, a proud and elite profession is adopting very mainstream problems including low motivation, selfishness, lack of ambition, laziness, carelessness, “just a job” attitude, all of which are very dangerous in an industry that services massive machinery.
The best run wind parks do not necessarily have the best machines, they just have the best motivated technicians with incentives aligned with the primary objective: keeping the turbines running.
We all hear the grumbling from technicians about poorly designed machines. However, the machines you have are the machines you have. That's it. It's all you get. If you want other types of machines to work on, then by all means move to another wind park. But I guarantee, if turbine problems make you grumble, you'll be grumbling at any wind park. The best technicians accept the challenges, and just work the problems they know they have – and keep the turbines running!