Recently I was asked the question, why should owners inspect their wind turbines? It was a straight forward question from a colleague looking for an honest answer. Having been in the wind industry 10+ years the simplicity of the question caught me off guard. The first thought that came to my mind was; why don’t owners inspect their assets more!
Let’s keep it simple by first defining what a wind turbine is. At the end of the day it’s nothing more than a machine that generates income. You invest in one form or another in a machine powered by the wind to produce electricity you can sell for revenue. By definition it’s an investment in the simplest form. With that in mind, if you want to secure that income you need to periodically inspect your machine. Similar to any other investment wind turbines need a check and balance system.
Start by asking yourself these questions…
- Are all the components in my machine in good health?
- How well is my service provider taking care of my investment?
- When was the last time you had an independent assessment of your site?
Secondly…have you lost asset visibility during the post-warranty period?
I’ve found over the years that people conceptually think of a wind turbine similar to any other major power plant. While they perform the same function, investors forget their environments are different. Turbines are continually subjected to the elements, often reside in remote locations, and the sites are spread out over miles. This translates to the reality that technicians don’t visit your investment every day, it’s not one giant plant similar to coal or nuclear. On top of that you have to remember that maintenance is only required twice a year and troubleshooting crews are only there to fix one problem. All of these factors combine create the need for inspections.
Common inspection findings
- Blade lightning damage
- Gearbox internal damage
- Main bearing damage
- High voltage cable wear
- Oil leaks/spills
- Foundation cracks
- Broken lights, trash, evidence of animals
If you have invested in wind for any length of time, you know these findings cost more money as they worsen. Conservatively it costs 3x more to fix a major problem as opposed to a minor one. Take a simple example such as an oil leak clean up. If it’s only up tower it may take two local site technicians two days to remedy the situation. However if it goes down tower or outside the tower, now it requires rope access. This requires mobilization, external technicians, and many additional man hours. Furthermore, the situations where mobilization is unavoidable, there is still a major cost difference between planned and unplanned repairs. The cost for an unplanned crane mobilization alone is enough to pay for periodic inspections, especially if you could have grouped several repairs together. And this doesn’t even include the lost revenue from the extended downtime incurred from an unplanned failure.
Initiating a long term inspection plan on your site is worth the investment. Immediately you are creating that check and balance system for all parties involved in your project. This defines the difference between minor vs major repairs and proactive vs reactive maintenance. And when you start to initiate this system, don’t be shy about notifying the stakeholders. Tell your OEM, service provider, and even the temporary contractors visiting your project. If all companies understand they are being examined, your investment is already in a better position. I’ve been to sites with a great quality culture and to sites with a poor quality culture. The difference in the condition of these turbines is literally, night and day.
Tips for getting started
Determine what you need. Remember to use your own judgment as each site dynamic is different. If you have a 10 turbine site with two technicians, I would only inspect the units once per year since they receive constant attention. However if you have 40+ turbines, bi-annual inspections would help me sleep a lot better at night. Most likely each turbine and each area within that turbine is not visited each month.
Pick only companies with a good inspection track record. Don’t choose your OEM since they have a vested interest in not finding problems. Also don’t choose a company that just started inspections a year ago or might possibly send a green technician to your project. These companies will always have tempting prices, but remember you get what you pay for. Ask companies how many inspections they have completed, what type of inspections they perform, and what are the common findings? If they can’t answer any of these questions quickly, keep looking.
Finally keep reminding yourself major failures cost a lot more than minor failures. I’ve seen more than a handful of customers go through the entire bidding process for programmatic inspections, only to back out once they see the cost. However these are then the same sites we visit one or two years later only to hear from our technicians, “those turbines are in horrible condition”. My mother used to tell me I was penny wise and dollar foolish. It took a while for the concept to sink in, but moving past my teenage years I understood what she was saying. To this day I’ve learned to trust data and facts when making a decision, even if it means sticker shock. In Wind a proactive dollar spent today will save thousands of reactive dollars later.