The future of wind power will be 'digital windfarms' that harness big data to learn and adapt in real time, optimising their power output and lifetime efficiency. So says General Electric which launched its 'Digital Windfarm' concept as the next evolution in wind energy in May of this year.
The concept comprises two parts. Firstly, it builds on improvements in the design of turbines, making them more efficient but also modular, customisable and adaptable.
For new wind turbines GE has developed a 'digital twin' modelling system, which recommends the optimum design for each turbine, from 20 different configurations, based on its unique location and relationship to the landscape.
Secondly, sensors fitted to the turbine are integrated into a digital infrastructure which continuously collects and crunches data to inform real-time adjustments maximizing the amount of energy that is generated.
As more data is collected, the software also learns over time, becoming more accurate. It enables analysis and prediction of performance and when maintenance will be required. Data is collected on vibrations, temperature and other signals informing how turbines are maintained and optimising the life-cycle performance of the project.
The data is analysed by GE's 'Predix' software, which the company has termed the operating system for the 'Industrial Internet'. The software can be applied to any manufacturer’s turbine.
Currently wind power provides just 2.6% of the world’s total energy supply. Could digital windfarms help increase this share?
Wind is the second fastest growing source of renewable energy behind solar. The International Energy Agency projects that onshore wind will become cost competitive with conventional power plants in many locations in the next five years, driven in part by improving technologies in onshore wind.
General Electric claim Digital Wind Farms can increase productivity by 20% compared to conventional technologies. CEO Steve Bolze told Bloomberg Business that these efficiencies will make more projects cost competitive without subsidy. For those that are on the edge of viability “a 20 percent improvement can be enough to tip the edge” Bolze said.
The digital wind farm is part of what GE and others are calling the ‘Industrial Internet’; drawing on developments in big data, machine learning and machine to machine communication and applying these to industry. GE along with AT&T, Cisco, IBM and Intel set up the Industrial Internet Consortium in March 2014 to help shape and facilitate its development though interoperability and common standards.
What will be the wider implications of these developments for sustainability? Is the industrial Internet just an extension of automation with powerful data analytics? Or is it distinct?
There are reasons to believe big data and connectivity are particularly useful technologies for renewables, allowing the intermittent and variable nature of wind and solar to be better predicted and managed. However, GE is simultaneously applying these same concepts to reduce costs in oil and gas operations.
The technologies of the industrial internet are perhaps also the enablers for a distributed energy system, which could be 100% renewable and with power generated closer to where it is consumed. Smart Grids are facilitating a better match up of supply and demand with energy sources that are inherently variable.
Whilst increasing connectivity is associated with decentralization, networked organising structures and power moving from large to small actors, might it be just as likely that machine to machine communication will reinforce the business models of large companies, facilitating the more seamless integration of large complex operations and global supply chains?
General Electric Company, Press Release (19 May 2015) ‘GE Launches the Next Evolution of Wind Energy Making Renewables More Efficient, Economic: the Digital Wind Farm’
General Electric Company, Brochure (2015) 'Digital Wind Farms'
Bloomber Business (19th May 2015) ‘GE Wind Powering 20 Percent Gain Leads to Life Without Subsidy’
Maritime Executive (4th October 2015) 'Digital windfarms promise 20 percent productivity gain'