Much has been written about recent improvements to equipment used to produce energy from wind. There are good reasons for that. Power output sizes and ratings have increased. Towers are taller. Blades are longer. Rotor diameters have increased. Gearboxes, generators and bearings are more reliable. Onboard sensors are more effective at measuring and recording data. These and other equipment improvements have increased the energy capture of turbines and made their operation more efficient. That, in turn, provides the incentive for developing more wind farms, and makes their financing more attractive to banks and other loan institutions.
Equipment improvements, however, do not paint the entire picture of how the wind industry continues to successfully compete in the highly competitive energy market. Technological advancements are impacting the industry as well. They also are making the development and operation of wind farms more efficient and, thus, profitable. In this article, we’ll discuss some of these technological advancements.
Putting paper aside
Although technology has outpaced paper records, some organizations still rely upon paper for stored documents and for a record of new tasks associated with the development and operation of wind farms. That’s an inefficient use of staff, resources and office space.
Realizing this, many organizations have turned to spreadsheets to maintain company and project information, manage financial records, issue lease and royalty payments, track inspections and manage workflow. Spreadsheets, though, require too much staff time to manually input and update information.
To avoid these difficulties, organizations now have the option of upgrading their database technology. An increasing number of wind companies are turning to a centralized database and web-based software to store, retrieve and update organizational and project information. Such systems are quicker and more efficient. They can help advance wind projects through each stage of development and operation. Some web-based systems can save an average of 35 percent in costs through project and organizational efficiencies.
A good first step toward a technology upgrade is a data migration. Think about the amount of organizational and project information a business collects over time. Clearly, information is one of an organization’s most valuable assets. Yet, too many organizations maintain information in formats that take up a great deal of office space, are time-consuming to retrieve and inefficient to update and utilize. Vital records can become damaged, difficult to find or lost. Even if a certain document, months or years old, is found among reams of paperwork, it might include notes that only employees no longer with the organization understand.
Data migration involves the transfer of information from a source database, correcting errors, reformatting and loading the files into a central repository of information. Many organizations that conduct a data migration take the next step of upgrading their software to utilize the benefits of the central repository. A data migration eliminates the need to store information in outdated formats. Record-keeping is standardized in a consistent format.
Once the data is moved into a central repository and the software system upgraded, efficiencies in developing and operating wind farms increase dramatically.
Wind patterns, topography, existing infrastructure, government regulations, population density, land use, proximity to utility lines and site preparation costs are just some of the myriad of issues that factor into determining a suitable location for a wind farm. The wind organization’s web-based software system, featuring geographical information systems (GIS) mapping, provides effective technological tools in navigating through these issues. It helps maximize return on the substantial level of investment necessary for a wind farm.
Although millions of dollars are needed to develop just one wind project, some companies still rely on paper, pencil and calculator or a semi-manual computer-assisted design to site wind farms and turbines. Either process is trial-and-error, time-consuming and inefficient. Neither is likely to produce the best siting options.
Determining the best locations for one or more meteorological (met) tower and, eventually, individual wind turbines is essential to maximizing return on investment. Again, technological advancements provide a solution to streamline the siting process and arrive at the best possible siting decisions.
Multi-objective adaptive heuristic algorithms can take the guesswork out of wind farm siting. Algorithms are computer instructions that automatically search project criteria and siting issues in an efficient manner to provide wind farm planners with a set of near optimal solutions. With GIS data, applied to information from government agencies and other third-party providers, the best possible location for one or more met tower can be determined. Once the wind farm location is decided, algorithms can search the solution space quickly for the near optimal locations for each wind turbine.
Through accurate siting, the most efficient and productive use of the wind farm space is possible.
Land rights, lease payments
Obtaining right-of-way and lease agreements from property owners is a complex process that, if not done accurately and efficiently, can delay a wind farm project for months, possibly years. Combined with GIS mapping, web-based software streamlines this complicated process. Providing detailed coverage of all right-of-way processes, such as access road planning, budgeting, due diligence, negotiations, title, survey, acquisition, environmental and lease payments, this technological advancement brings transparency, reduces errors and compresses cycle times for the variety of tasks associated with easement acquisition.
Additional efficiency is possible through mobile technology. Right-of-way field agents and wind company representatives can retrieve, update and upload information to the central repository. They can input notes, even by voice-to-text, and upload those immediately to the project file without waiting to return to the office.
The wind company’s relationship with a property owner doesn’t end with the signing of a right of way agreement. At that point, the relationship is only beginning. Lease and royalty payments must be issued regularly. As is the case with other tasks associated with operating a wind farm, managing payments is complex, but essential. The costs and financial risks are high. Plenty can go wrong, and often does.
There are many variables associated with meeting financial obligations to landowners for a wind farm. Lease and royalty payments go out to multiple property owners on an irregular schedule. Landowners can be individuals, married couples, corporations or trusts. Landowners change address. Married couples get divorced, Corporations are bought out or close. Payment amounts may be divided into percentages for multiple owners of one property. Some payments are adjusted by the Consumer Price Index, others by the Gross Domestic Product Implicit Price. Some payments are adjusted by simple interest, others compounded annually.
Despite these and many other variables, wind energy companies still rely upon paper or spreadsheets to manage payments. Either process involves a great deal of staff time. Errors and late payments are likely, which can damage the company’s reputation.
Software solutions provide a comprehensive and flexible payment program that automates the complex process of managing lease and royalty payments. The software is customized to company or project needs. All landowner and payment information is entered into the system once, or changes made once, and the system does the rest. Rather than relying on hundreds of manual calculations and adjustments each month that are time-consuming and prone to error, the software, operating from a central repository of project and company information, conducts automatic calculations, factoring in the myriad of variables.
A process that once took weeks to complete can, with the right technological upgrade, be accomplished in minutes.
There are other ways by which technology improves efficiencies of developing and operating wind farms.
Some wind companies are finding advantages to integrating their financial and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems through their central repository. They find that integration allows for seamless transfer of data between all systems. In addition, integration further increases audit controls and project efficiencies, as it facilitates the process of monitoring, controlling and notifying wind farm or regional operating systems from a central location.
Maintenance and inspections of met towers and wind turbines are managed more efficiently with a technological upgrade. Automatic notifications can be issued when a scheduled inspection is necessary. Project administrators, managing the workflows of company crews, can schedule inspections. Each crew conducts the inspection, retrieves data on the turbine on mobile devices, uploads results of the inspection and performs any necessary work to properly maintain the turbine. The updated file on what work was performed to the turbine provides a record of the inspection, what work was necessary and who performed the work. It also ensures no duplication of efforts.
The organization can also schedule reports to be issued automatically on the entire wind farm, each met tower or wind turbine according to a desired schedule and format. This ensures that all selected individuals within the organization are kept up-to-date on the status of the infrastructure and its operation.
The benefits of a centralized database and platform for managing data extend beyond the scope of one software product. Most companies utilize several technology products to conduct business operations. Providers of centralized software products are building in the capability to connect and utilize information from other systems. That further extends the reach of a single platform to control business operations.
Each organization has its own set of processes that create inefficiencies and hurt the profitability of wind energy projects. In a world of intense competition from a variety of energy industries, it is imperative that wind energy companies operate as efficiently as possible. Advancements in equipment accomplish that. So do advances in database and operating systems.
Dan Liggett is Communications and Public Relations Manager of geoAMPS, a technology company in the Columbus, OH, area that specializes in software solutions to manage land rights and infrastructure assets. The company offers a suite of industry-specific software products, including altAMPS, which is designed to meet the needs of renewable energy industries. For more information, call 614-389-4871 or visit www.geoamps.com.