Winds of change in renewables

When Tejpreet Singh Chopra ventured into the renewables sector, he realised quickly that maintenance is tougher than installations. 

As CEO of Bharat Light and Power (BLP), Chopra had set up wind farms in five locations in India. All the farms together had about 200 turbines, each costing over $2 million. 

This was the easy part. As the project matured and energy was steadily being generated, BLP began to face serious maintenance issues.  Each turbine has a generator, gearbox, bearings, and blades, which must work at peak efficiency in the short period when wind speeds are optimal for generating energy. Renewable energy companies like BLP make 70 per cent of their revenue during 5 months of peak winds and thus can’t afford any breakdown during the period. 

A moment of crisis in its wind farm in Gujarat forced it to look at artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) to protect its assets. A wind turbine burned down because of a faulty battery, creating disruption in generation and unplanned cost overrun. 

This triggered a move to install sensors for an IoT-based maintenance system, which would trigger advance alarms for wind turbines. BLP built an AI-based IOT-platform Orion and set up its own control centre in Bengaluru to monitor its energy generating units. It began monitoring hundreds of tags a minute from its turbines, applying its AI- and machine learning-based algorithms and was able to predict failures. This prevented future failures in its wind farms. “While we were investing large amounts building wind farms, the failure of the smallest component could shut down an entire wind turbine was compromising our efficient operation,” says Chopra. “A $5,000 battery could fail and shut down a $2.5 million piece of equipment!”  

This crisis also launched new part of his business of using IoT for preventive maintenance in energy and industrial sectors. Orion also provides monitoring, reporting and analysis for clients to predict likely failures in 2,000 wind turbines. These account for over 2GW of wind power in countries, such as France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, the US and Portugal. French energy group EDF Energies Nouvelles is partnering BLP for Orion. 

The renewable sector is increasingly adopting new technologies based on artificial intelligence. Investment in the sector in India has doubled to $20 billion in the last five years, according to the International Energy Agency. India’s hunger for clean energy means several more billions of dollars will be needed in the sector. For the investment to deliver returns, high levels of efficient generation will be an imperative. Renewable energy companies can't afford disruption as many operate on thin margins.  

Chopra says cost management is critical for energy companies. A smart IoT system can save $200,000 in just six months for a company. The use of IoT will be important element in the new investments in wind and solar farms. A study estimates that the global market for IoT in renewable energy would grow from $10 billion to over $45 billion by 2024. IoT solutions for renewables are unique since new energy farms can be designed for IoT. Unlike legacy energy producers, the new players had the advantage of embedding sensors in a way that that have a constant flow of information through the generation process. 

Clean energy is becoming cheaper and, therefore, more affordable. The use of IoT will also ensure that it can achieve efficiencies that traditional energy companies struggle to achieve.

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