|As wind power becomes a larger segment of the power generation industry, more money is being spent to provide O&M services and more solutions are available to wind farm operators. Photo courtesy of Gemini.|
By Justin Martino, J.D., Associate editor
The wind power generation business is growing rapidly in the U.S., and the increased amount of megawatts produced by wind turbines has created new businesses and a demand for new services. While turbine manufacturers have seen a growth in production and services, third-party or independent service providers (ISP) are also a key component of keeping a wind power project in top condition.
Unlike the operations and maintenance services provided by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), an ISP will work on across a range of models and brands, providing both routine scheduled maintenance and unscheduled maintenance. Although OEMs will always have place in the role of maintaining a wind power project, ISPs can help reduce costs and be a benefit to wind farm operators.
Working hand-in-hand with OEMs
Although ISPs may provide the same or similar services as OEMs, the two sectors of the industry are not in competition, according to Gemini Energy Services Vice President and Managing Director Jimmy Haley. A large section of Gemini’s work is subcontracting with OEMs to provide services to wind projects.
“These are multimillion-dollar machines and projects, and as a result people want that tender, loving care from the OEM,” Haley said. “They want to have that love from the OEMs themselves because it’s their product, and they know it best from that perspective. The way we use that to our advantage is to work hand-in-hand with the majority of the OEMs here in the U.S. We can rely on that knowledge, and we’re stepping in as the OEM in a lot of situations.”
OEMs will always have a part in the post-sale O&M strategy, Haley said. Many ISPs have responded by linking themselves to turbine manufacturers. Gemini has trained its technicians to work on most turbines available in the U.S. in order to provide support for warranty work and parts work.
Gemini also provides information and recommendations to OEMs on how designs might be improved or tweaked, some of which may be the sort of minor detail that isn’t noticed until the turbine is in the field and operational.
In one instance, Haley said, a turbine model had a hatch that would open to the front and push against the gearbox and often come back down and hit the technician’s head. The manufacturer was notified of the problem.
“The next revision of the turbine, they’d implemented a change,” Haley said. “It’s definitely a good feedback mechanism to have in place.”
Services provided by ISPs
Although an ISP may range from a global corporation to a one-man local operation, it’s possible to find ISPs that can provide nearly any service a wind farm operator could require.
Gemini, for example, provides condition monitoring, lubrication oil quality management, technical staffing, scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and large major component repair, including gearbox change outs when required.
“We work from the base bolts to the blade tips,” Haley said. “We work with the OEMs. We work with the owners. We provide very highly trained techs. We have tools and trucks and equipment to support projects in remote locations. The focus for us as an organization is the life cycle of the turbine from construction and commissioning so the customer can start off on the right foot throught the operational life cycle of the turbine.”
The company provides different styles of support that depends on the needs of the customer. That can include short-term support with a defined start and tentatively defined ending, such a scheduled maintenance or a retrofit. That category also includes any major component change out, which goes a little beyond the standard short-term support because of the additional costs and accountability associated with the repair.
Like many other ISPs, Gemini also includes long-term maintenance options where the company builds a package depending on what the wind farm operator wants. That could include scheduled maintenance support, remote monitoring and call support.
“Every project is so different,” Haley said. “There are different flavors of each project too – it could be a very heavy mechanical project, hydraulic project or electrical project, so we kind of shape our teams based on that.”
|Because of the loss of revenue associated with a wind turbine failure, having 24/7 support from an O&M company can help a company maximize the efficiency of a project. Photo courtesy of Gemini.|
Although ISPs may work closely with O&Ms to provide O&M for wind turbines, ISP owners say there are several differences between an ISP and an OEM for long-term support.
“When you’re looking at this and choosing purely between the OEM and the ISP, flexibility is a key advantage for us because scheduled maintenance is one aspect,” Haley said. “Unpredicted, unscheduled maintenance is a much large cost component of the O&M strategy and the O&M budget moving forward for the life of the project. Therefore, having an auxiliary workforce like we provide means we can adapt to different situations and come out when necessary as opposed to having that dedicated cost each year, each month, each day that a warranty is going to provide in that situation.”
ISPs also have a smaller corporate structure than many OEMs, Haley said.
“We don’t carry the overhead an OEM is going to carry from a manufacturing standpoint,” he said. “They have a manufacturing cost, they have a large corporate backing that they have to handle from a back office support structure, they have to have those materials and the supply chain developed to support their sold projects. We don’t have that. We’re not burdened by that, so we’re able to operate as a much leaner organization, which means we can pass a lot of cost savings based on that alone onto the customers.”
ISPs may also be more flexible when using condition monitoring systems and adapting to new technology, Haley said.
Many wind farms now use condition monitoring systems that can track a great deal of data, potentially gigabytes a day just from one turbine. Haley said the amount of data available can lead to “the old analysis paralysis mentality where you don’t know where to start because there’s so much detail.”
The amount of data and experience an ISP may have from working on a variety of models and brands across the U.S. can help prioritize that data.
“It’s about how to develop the trends and know what to key in on and what data to look at so you can make that data usable,” he said. “Once we have enough data, we can home in on what to look for. It makes the entire strategic outlook more predictive.”
ISPs are often able to quickly integrate information obtained from monitoring systems as well, with Haley saying generating changes in an OEM’s system often being time-consuming.
“We have completely customized solutions,” he said. “If I need changes, I can implement those literally overnight. I can get our coders on the phone to implement changes if we’re going to find something that works a little better. That capability for us is essential.
“Globalization is driving innovation in the wind industry. Find the solutions that are scalable and can work for an entire project or an entire fleet of projects is paramount.”
|ISPs will often have the same equipment as an OEM to enable them to make repairs to turbines in isolated locations or harsh conditions. Photo courtesy of Gemini.|
Working with emerging technology
That capability is essential because the wind power industry is still developing in many ways. Unlike more traditional power generation sources, wind turbine O&M providers are constantly finding new ways to improve their services.
“There’s definitely an extremely stark contrast between the O&M strategies that already exist in more mature industries than what we have on the wind side,” Haley said. “The wind side, what we see is it’s still a very kneejerk reaction. Other industries that are a little older and have a little more experience have been able to handle and shape schedules more on predictive maintenance. The industry is evolving, but we’re still stuck in this kind of knee-jerk reaction mentality when it comes to O&M, where people think, ‘We’ll fix it when it breaks’ instead of, ‘We’ll do something to prevent it from breaking.'”
Haley said he was surprised at the lack of conditioning monitoring equipment when he first entered the wind industry. As an engineer in the Navy, he was accustomed to condition monitoring on ships that were 50 years old.
“Everything in the engineering plan of a ship has condition monitoring,” he said “Every single component has some sort of measurement that we can track in a data logger. It’s still kind of an emerging technology, I think. Not from an industrial standpoint – condition monitoring has been around forever – but it’s just now getting to a point where it’s more accepted in the wind, and I think it’s vital for watching these multimillion dollar assets.”
The future of ISPs
With OEMs already subcontracting work to ISPs, it’s natural to think the business will continue to expand and be able to provide even more benefits to wind project operators as the industry continues to evolve. Haley said the company is already looking at predictive modeling and mathematical modeling so turbines can predict where the turbine will predict where the wind will be instead of reacting to a change after it has already happened. That can help reduce stress on the unit and extend its lifetime.
With an ability and willingness to embrace that new technology, ISPs could be the quickest to adopt changes that could prove a major benefit to wind power projects.
“Emerging technology items are really a key component as we move into the next generation of the industry,” Haley said. “I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”
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