By Alex Michel, Renewables Service Leader, GE’s Power Conversion business
This past year has been extraordinary for renewable energy; the Ren21 Renewables 2016 Global Status Report shows the largest global capacity additions seen to date. As investment in solar, wind and hydro continues to increase and new technologies come to market, the industry’s service needs are rapidly changing. And, in an industry where the life cycle of a solution is critical, service is becoming an increasingly important part of operations.
Investors are looking more into service agreements to ensure a project’s bankability. If a problem arises on a wind turbine deep at sea or in the middle of a solar farm in the desert, the speed at which the issue is resolved is crucial, and that’s why operators from all sectors are looking for a team of qualified, experienced engineers and technical personnel to provide them with worldwide field support at all times. It comes with no surprise that service is now an important piece in the whole package provided to customers during the bidding process.
Here we discuss the key trends driving change in the renewables services sector:
The requirement for a one-stop shop for services
Owners are looking more and more towards one-stop service providers that have the ability to service components from any manufacturer. This trend is rising as operators see the cost- and time-saving benefits it can bring. Take solar farms for example, owners and operators don’t want to have to pay for one team to take care of the inverters and another to service the substation. Simplified service interface and management, lower cost and streamlined responsibility make them look only for one quote for their overall portfolio.
It’s not only operators that are seeing the benefits, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are acknowledging the opportunities that come with providing a full life cycle service. This has been demonstrated by the recent acquisitions of independent service providers by large OEMs.
Both owners and operators recognize that, given the already existing infrastructure, it is the actual OEMs that can provide a better level of service, as they ultimately have the complete capabilities available from basic maintenance up to obsolescence management and complex fleet engineering. Taking this into consideration, working with companies such as GE, who have experience across the entire value chain and can provide and service the complete electrical equipment, presents a distinct advantage to operators.
Fast industry growth has also meant the renewables sector has seen the rise and fall of many startups. It’s not unusual for operations to include components manufactured by a company which no longer exists. And while this can be challenging for many, it’s leading OEMs with capable service teams that have an enduring presence in the industry, specialist expertise and flexible capabilities to be preferred in the market.
The challenge of maintaining operational know-how
The service industry is facing a global skills gap. With the demand for service engineers continuing to increase as installed renewable capacity rises, maintaining operational know-how is critical. While many firms are able to recruit graduates, provide them with field experience and develop them into valuable resources, staff retention is more difficult; particularly as engineers are in such high demand and are regularly headhunted. This retention of knowledge is becoming even more crucial as multi-brand service becomes the norm, as it is leading the level of knowledge needed by service engineers to be greater than ever before.
Service providers must find smart ways to maintain know-how within the operational team. It’s also a new challenge for companies to ensure that their engineers have the necessary training on competitor products. To counter this, the ability of service providers to manage sub-contractors or to be able to immediately form a core team who has the competence is essential.
While it may not seem immediately obvious, software can be used to retain knowledge and experience. For example, by building up a comprehensive database—keeping a better record of service work and customer feedback, and embedding service processes into software tools, expertise can be retained, repeated and scaled across similar renewables sites after the personnel leaves. Engineers are problem fixers after all, and having access to historical data and information can help to inform future decisions and solve current problems.
While we cannot solve the global skills gap overnight, the good news is that the perception of service is changing, and it has become an attractive sector for young talented recruits who are ready to take on a challenge.
The increasing involvement of service engineers in the product development process
This change in perception has allowed service to advance its position in the value chain. Whereas previously, engineers would be trained once products were ready for market, they’re increasingly being involved much earlier in the development process.
This is due to the fact that companies focus on metrics such as Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) or Levelized Cost of Energy (LCoE) when driving growth. And, it is widely known that to achieve the lowest TCO, OEMs must look not only at the upfront cost of equipment, but also the continued running costs. It is the optimized combination of the two that would yield the lowest TCO. And in order to achieve this optimum point and reduce continued service costs, service field experience and data is necessary.
In GE’s Berlin factory for example, service engineers are already involved from the early design phase. Leveraging from their valuable field experience, they are able to define requirements on new products’ serviceability and participate in the prototype commissioning. Not only does this ensure the best form of product development, but it also allows engineers to build knowledge and expertise from the offset and allows those involved in the product’s creation to train others once the product is released.
The rise of digital technologies
With a lack of engineers in the global market, using remote monitoring technology can allow a core engineering team to monitor plant performance and make decisions remotely, reducing the number of engineers needed on any given site. This is particularly important for offshore wind farms and certain solar plants, where qualified engineers are very hard to find and the locations are extremely remote.
Digital software analytics can also help reduce maintenance costs. For example, by building a “digital twin”—a mathematical model of any piece of equipment—OEMs can subject the model to the same operational conditions as the real equipment, allowing them to estimate the remaining lifetime of the components in the process. This allows OEMs to spot anomalies and therefore potential issue before they even arise, helping to reduce unplanned downtime.
This use of remote monitoring and software analytics enables moderators to move to a process of predictive maintenance and prognostics, whereby they carry out maintenance only when it is required, reducing a plant’s operational risk and saving the industry significant maintenance costs.
Understanding the vast benefits that come with predictive maintenance, GE created the Predix platform, which allows service engineers to analyze data and deliver real-time insights to optimize industrial infrastructure and operations. This remote monitoring offers GE’s customers access to the best expert in any given field, no matter where in the world they are based.
While the industry may be changing, the importance of service will only continue to grow. Through working with a global partner to deliver engineering and service capabilities, firms can invest their money and employees’ time towards innovating and identifying new products, solutions and services to bring to market, safe in the knowledge that if a problem arises upon a wind turbine or solar farm, it will be fixed by a trusted partner in the field, quickly.