Contributed by Myriam Fatene, head of industry segments for European business, Nokia
As energy demand soars, the case for renewable sources such as wind becomes stronger. More companies and countries are reducing their reliance on traditional energy sources to achieve net zero goals. Consequently, annual wind energy generation is expected to double between 2022 and 2027, bringing total worldwide wind capacity to more than 1,500 GW.
To achieve this, the size and number of wind farms and the turbines within them must grow, as well as the workforce. A new report expects that over 574,000 technicians will be required to keep pace with this growth with almost 43% being new to the industry. Rapid reskilling of the workforce is going to be a challenge, but companies that harness operational data, as well as wind power, can more seamlessly manage their transition.
Digital transformation of operations will be a vital part of this. Companies must be supported by an extensive data and communications network, delivering pervasive, uninterrupted connectivity for their workers and equipment.
In the harsh and extreme environment of an offshore wind farm spanning miles beyond the reach of cellular networks, or on remote rural onshore farms where wind power can sometimes be stronger than the existing network signal, many companies are now turning to 4G/LTE and 5G private wireless.
Private wireless gives wind farms the edge
Private wireless provides a robust, reliable way to support the connectivity needs of people, machines, and myriad Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors.
Fewer 4G/LTE and 5G radios are required to cover a wider geographical area than Wi-Fi access points, and they aren’t susceptible to interference from metal structures. 4G/LTE and 5G private wireless networks are also flexible, not constrained by the point-to-point connectivity or cost of microwave. They allow wind farm operators to connect assets and benefit from predictable services, with the ability to prioritize resources to support the most critical use cases.
Using a private wireless platform that allows companies to support existing technologies will accelerate return on investment. By converging existing Wi-Fi networks for IT and other non-mission-critical services, monitoring systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition, and land mobile radio standards-based communications systems, including TETRA and P25, onto a single network, companies can reduce maintenance time and costs.
Even if existing Wi-Fi or public cellular 4G and 5G connectivity is available, wind farm operators can implement private wireless to take advantage of industrial edge capabilities, allowing data to be processed on premises in real time. This will ensure they maintain data governance at the site and unlock more compelling industry applications.
Empowering the connected worker while enhancing operations
With critical private wireless connectivity in place, companies can protect and empower their workforce as they embark on site selection and acquisition activities through to construction and operation. For example, mission-critical push to talk can be augmented with data and video, allowing workers to share more context with colleagues as they work at the top of a turbine, on a service vessel, or on the ground, while offshore teams can communicate with colleagues back to teams onshore leveraging existing microwave links or subsea optical cables.
Using IIoT sensors, teams can access environmental data, faster on sea conditions, wind speeds, and more during site selection, construction, and operations. They can also use sensors to access and use data to protect operations.
With many moving parts, failures can be expensive in terms of interruption to power generation as well as equipment replacement costs. By connecting turbines to the private wireless network using sensors, teams can access constant feeds of OT data and be alerted when it falls outside of an expected range. Then they can implement predictive maintenance activities to resolve issues quickly and extend the life of turbines.
Likewise, training can be accelerated, and maintenance activities further enhanced through several connected worker capabilities, allowing companies to more rapidly ramp-up staffing levels.
For example, technologies such as AI, VR, and mixed reality can be used to simulate hazardous conditions for training purposes, allowing workers to be better prepared without being placed at risk. And by using QR codes on equipment that workers can scan from their devices, they can implement capabilities that allow those workers to access VR data overlays that guide them to areas that need attention.
Use of autonomous drones for remote inspection
Once in operational mode, turbines must be regularly inspected to ensure there is no damage or missing parts. Each manual inspection requires the turbine to be shut down, and equipment erected so workers can access the structure.
As wind turbines increase in height and number, this will become more hazardous and time-consuming. By using drones connected over the private wireless network, in-person visits are reduced, and teams can access clear images from a greater number of turbines faster without a huge disruption to operations. With more information, they can make better decisions about the turbines they need to access.
Drones can also be used during site surveys and construction. For example, multiple drone flights leveraging cameras, thermal images and more can help teams develop a clear view of land topology, sea conditions, or other aspects of the site for more rapid decision-making. Drones can be used during construction, allowing teams to share clear video images with offsite inspectors.
Drones that can be operated remotely for one-off flights or scheduled for regular inspection flights offer the greatest benefits. For these autonomous operations, drones must be able to return to a charging dock that protects them from the harsh conditions onshore and offshore.
As energy production ramps up in remote areas, wind farms could become even bigger targets for attack. Leveraging drone surveillance as well as connected CCTV together with sensors and object detection capabilities, companies can implement perimeter monitoring, with any unauthorized activity triggering alerts to security teams. This will offer greater protection for on-site workers too.
Protecting the workforce through ruggedized devices
Companies can also protect their workforce by equipping them with the most appropriate connected devices. They should investigate the use of smartphone and tablet devices that are ruggedized for industrial use to ensure reliable operation in harsh onshore and offshore environments.
There are devices that offer hands-free communication capabilities too, including helmets with integrated headsets, wearable remote speaker microphones, glasses, and other devices with push-to-talk capabilities. Leveraging the most appropriate connected devices for the tasks they perform; workers can seamlessly interact with colleagues and the equipment they are working on.
It’s clear that for wind farm operators to benefit from greater operational efficiency and profitability and ramp up the workforce as they expand operations, they must be supported by robust, pervasive, private wireless connectivity.
Working with a provider that offers a single platform solution with the widest array of capabilities, they can achieve their goals more rapidly while also accelerating return on investment.