Global environmental and industrial measurement company Vaisala has signed a 3-year contract with independent power company Pattern Energy Group to access lightning data for ten American wind farms.
The historical and real-time lightning data will be used by Pattern Energy to optimize blade inspection and repair programmes in order to counter one of the most common causes of turbine downtime in the wind energy industry. Lightning damage accounts for nearly a quarter of reported insurance claims in the US wind sector, while turbine blades have the highest failure rate of any single component. Lightning damage to blades is one of the most common threats to the operational performance of a wind farm.
The potential financial impact on wind farm operators of a lightning strike to a turbine blade is twofold, combining costly property damage with downtime and business interruption during inspection, repairs and replacement. While minor blade damage may affect the long-term performance of a wind farm, driving up operations and maintenance costs, a total loss of a blade will require root cause analysis which can take several weeks, directly impacting project revenues. A full blade replacement could cost $100,000 or more, depending on the extent of the damage.
To date, the wind energy market has been slow to follow the example of other sectors in assessing the full effects of lightning damage on assets by incorporating lightning data into its maintenance inspection programmes.
Pattern Energy operates an expanding portfolio of wind energy projects in the lightning-prone central US and Canada, between Texas and Ontario. The company has now recognized the potential impact of lightning on its sites and is taking proactive steps to minimize the associated operational and financial risk as it works to re-engineer its data systems.
The 3-year contract signed with Vaisala will give Pattern Energy access to the Fault Analysis Lightning Location System (FALLS), a unique tool that allows utilities and project operators to overlay the locations of project infrastructure with correlating lightning activity on an interactive map. The system makes use of real-time data from Vaisala’s North American Lightning Detection Network (NALDN). It will allow Pattern Energy to pinpoint the location of recent and historic lightning strikes at its sites in order to determine exactly which turbines have been affected and the extent of the damage. This will enable the company to spot blade damage early, thereby mitigating the risk of further and more severe damage in the long-term. It will also help to reduce inspection and repair costs while keeping project downtime to a minimum.
Historic data provided by Vaisala will help Pattern Energy to develop a retrospective awareness of exactly which past faults have been caused by lightning, enabling the company to prepare detailed insurance and warranty-based claims and start modelling and anticipating future damage, thereby allowing optimization of existing O&M efforts and possibly also site design.
“For Pattern Energy, it’s certainly a case of ‘looking back to move forward” said Remus Zaharescu, Global Manager of Energy Sales at Vaisala. “By conducting a thorough assessment of historic cases using Vaisala’s extensive database of lightning activity, Pattern Energy’s operations team is setting a new standard for the mitigation of lightning risks. In turn, by targeting blade failure, they are enhancing the industry’s knowledge of one of the key issues affecting the performance and profitability of wind energy sites globally.”
Ben Rice, Operations Engineering Manager, Pattern Energy, added that while there is no way to eliminate the risk of lightning, FALLS has helped the company to look back and quickly assess turbine damage, enabling it to determine whether lightning truly caused damage and exactly when that damage occurred. This saves a great deal of time and effort when it comes to blade inspections as well as huge costs. Blade repair can cost tens of thousands of dollars while replacement is in the hundreds of thousands. However, the annual cost for data provided by Vaisala across the company’s entire wind fleet is a small fraction of what it would spend to replace a single blade, so it pays for itself and is well worth the investment.
Vaisala FALLS is used by 80 percent of the top revenue-generating utilities in the United States. It is also incorporated into the operations of electric utilities in 15 countries worldwide. The NALDN lightning network in the United States and Canada is complemented by Vaisala’s GLD360 Global Lightning Dataset, a service that provides real-time lightning data for accurate and early detection of severe weather worldwide.