Elevating Wind Energy: ‘Intelligent Inspection’ Transforms Turbine Operations

A successful clean energy transition depends on maximizing output and minimizing the costs of renewable investments.In particular, wind turbines are highly effective assets but require frequent detailed inspections and maintenance to ensure they are fully operational and maximize their energy production.

This can be ‘easier said than done’ for many wind turbine owners and operations and maintenance (O&M) firms. Traditional inspection methods are often complex and expensive, with significant safety concerns leading to hesitation when investing in these procedures. However, regular inspections and maintenance are crucial to maximizing generation and can be done without extensive cost, downtime, and human resources.

“Intelligent inspection” technology like drones and analytics supported by artificial intelligence offers effective and efficient insights, enabling the identification of critical and dangerous anomalies and optimizing inspection operations. The emergence of intelligent inspection technology provides a way to avoid common pitfalls in traditional wind turbine inspections and reimagine routine maintenance procedures. By implementing these techniques and utilizing technology like drones and AI, wind farm operators can significantly reduce the time and cost associated with inspections and maintenance while optimizing turbine performance.

The Wind Beneath Our Net-Zero Wings

In 2021, wind electricity generation soared, logging a record increase of 273 TWh, a growth rate of 17%. This remarkable accomplishment exceeded the growth achieved in 2020 by 55% and stood as the highest among all renewable power technologies. The substantial development was made possible due to an unprecedented surge in wind capacity additions, with 113 GW added in 2020 compared to just 59 GW in 2019.

Although global wind capacity additions in 2022 slightly decreased by 17% compared to the previous year, the industry still managed to add approximately 78 GW of wind capacity, making it the third-best year ever for new installations. Further contributing to the progress, the wind energy industry is also experiencing remarkable technology advancements—including improved turbine manufacturing and recycling methods, exploring the potential of offshore wind, and enhancing grid interconnection.

As we look ahead, the wind energy industry is set to achieve a historic milestone this year, reaching a cumulative installed capacity of 1 terawatt worldwide. This remarkable feat underscores the tremendous progress the industry has made and emphasizes the growing significance of operations and maintenance to ensure the continued success of wind energy.

Blown Away: O&M Challenges

Wind turbines have an expected life span of approximately 20 years. Regular inspections, monitoring, and maintenance are essential to maximize this life span and prevent costly end-of-service failures. By routinely checking for common issues such as leading edge erosion, lightning strike damage, impact damage, debonding, delamination, and more, operators can identify these issues before they become catastrophic. Neglecting proper inspections and maintenance can lead to costly downtime, reduced energy output, and potential safety hazards. This proactive approach helps avoid potentially more expensive and significant repairs in the future.

Traditionally, wind turbine blade inspections were done by rope access, meaning that a person or two would repel from ropes down the length of the blade, taking pictures by hand. This method is dangerous and time-consuming, with each turbine worksite presenting significant risks to technicians and high costs to the organization.

The analysis also needs to be improved regarding data organization and processing. As wind power plants and farms grow in size, sifting through the vast amount of data becomes impractical at scale—increasing the risk of downtime or catastrophic failure. Additionally, the high cost of running and inspecting assets is a concern for many turbine owners and O&M firms, who often handle inspections and maintenance themselves without clear guidance on where to focus their efforts.

Easy, Breezy Turbine Inspections

As wind energy continues to gain momentum, the industry is also experiencing a significant shift in how maintenance and inspections are conducted. Optimizing turbine operational capacity is crucial to reach our clean energy goals. Intelligent condition monitoring system solutions continuously monitor and maximize the turbines’ performance, allowing operators to identify opportunities for enhanced energy production and improved operational efficiency while extending the lifespan of the equipment.

Aerial drones with advanced sensors capture detailed images and data, providing a comprehensive view of turbine conditions. These technologies enable the precise location of critical anomalies, facilitating prompt maintenance actions and elevating the effectiveness of operations. AI-powered analytics analyze this data, identifying significant weaknesses and prioritizing maintenance interventions.

These comprehensive, streamlined inspection solutions fuse data collection, processing, collaboration, and reporting, enabling wind turbine owners to access highly structured, actionable data in a fraction of the time compared to traditional manual inspections. This leads to increased efficiency and reliability, actionable insights, reduced overall costs, more effective deployment of personnel, better safety and risk management, and reduced downtime.

Reaching New Heights

The significance of intelligent inspection cannot be overstated—it not only enhances wind turbine performance and extends its lifespan but also contributes to the overall sustainability of clean energy generation. With increased ROI, reduced costs, improved risk management, and enhanced safety, turbine owners and O&M firms can confidently navigate the challenges of inspections and maintenance.

Using antiquated manual inspection methods—and leaving more than half of the fleet uninspected altogether—guarantees problems that impact safety, energy output, and lifespan go unidentified and unaddressed. We cannot expect to run at reduced generation and still achieve clean energy goals. Intelligent inspection empowers wind turbine operators to make data-driven decisions, proactively address potential issues, and ensure the safety, efficiency, and longevity of wind energy generation. The bottom line: Intelligent inspection saves money and elevates wind energy to new heights.

Laura Pokryfky is Director of Wind Operations at Zeitview.

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