TransAlta wind engineers create industry-first software

Sep 29, 2015

TransAlta wind engineers create industry-first software

Software allows standard monitoring and reporting across a diverse wind fleet

No energy left behind. That’s the goal of TransAlta engineers who developed a new monitoring system make the company’s diverse wind fleet more efficient.

TransAlta has 23 wind generation facilities throughout Canada and the United States, comprising of 989 wind turbines with the capacity to generate 1,476 megawatts of wind power. Included in these wind operations is the first wind generation facility in Canada, Cowley Ridge, in Alberta, dating back to 1993.

As TransAlta built this vast wind fleet, technology has changed and many facilities were acquired from different owners and operators. Individual wind facilities are typically built with a series of identical turbines, but as the TransAlta wind fleet was acquired and built, there were various turbine models at varying ages made from various manufacturers and with different data recording systems.

“For the longest time, we’ve been the largest owner operator in Canada, so we have the most units out there,” says Tracy Duncan, wind engineer and co-creator of the software.

“The vision was to take a whole fleet approach to where our renewable energy was being lost and where we could make more of it.”

No energy left behind

Maintenance is key to ensuring wind facilities continue to efficiently and effectively produce energy. Preventative maintenance is one thing, but a software that would identify where TransAlta could conduct proactive maintenance, saving energy and money, was Duncan’s and her colleague Melissa Valgardson’s vision.

“With wind, you find a good site, put some wind turbines up and then the key is to keep them going as they should. You don’t make them better, but do your best to make sure no energy is lost where it doesn’t need to be,” says Duncan.

For example, an instrumentation problem can cause thousands of dollars (and corresponding energy) lost each month. Regular maintenance may not find it immediately and a fix is usually much cheaper than the loss. A software to identify these problems earlier would be the key.

A gold mine of data

It started as a reporting exercise. With over 870 million data points being sent to a central data base, Duncan and Valgardson, also a wind engineer, needed a system to pull just the numbers they needed for reporting purposes. They then realized they were sitting on a gold mine.

“We realized we could look at our energy and see where we were losing it and go and recover some of that energy,” Duncan recalls.

Although every wind turbine has a system developed by the manufacturer to manage them, they weren’t standard and different systems displayed the same information differently. Using the millions of data points these turbines sent to a central database, Duncan and Valgardson realized they could pull standard information from each turbine that could then be compared.

“Sometimes you can’t tell if a turbine that’s down in Québec for two weeks, whether that’s a big or a small problem versus a turbine in Southern Alberta that breaks down for 10 minutes over and over,” says Duncan.

“But now we know. We know how much energy and money we are losing.”

WOPR

Called WOPR (Wind Operations and Performance Reporting), the new software provides site specific dashboards that display each turbine, with a grid showing the status of every turbine within 10 minute periods. If there is a component that is acting up (from the turbines slowing down to a gearbox issue) or a planned maintenance or grid outage, a corresponding colored block will indicate the issue and the time period in which it occurs. Over time and shrunk to a smaller size, it provides a map that shows anomalies versus regular issues over time.

WOPR is even able to identify and alert site managers to nuisance problems, where a turbine may fault and start itself up again. WOPR will send an email to alert them how many times the fault has occurred over the past week so they can be aware of it and check on it if needed.

Providing a competitive advantage

Identifying these nuisances, anomalies and even larger issues has allowed for proactive maintenance that has saved the wind fleet over $2 million dollars in the past year, a savings that provides TransAlta a competitive advantage.

Going forward, Duncan and Valgardson are continuing to mine the data and look at ways to innovate with WOPR.

“We’d like to use this information to plan our maintenance and capital plans going forward,” Duncan says of the technology.

“We know the difference between the energy we lost due to blade maintenance at one site versus a gearbox problem at another site versus an electrical issue at another site. Everything is now quantified both in terms of energy and dollars, and we want to use that going forward to target the places we can be most efficient.”

Melissa Valgardson and Tracy Duncan won an internal President’s Award for Innovation for developing WOPR. The President’s awards recognize the very best in our company. They honour our commitments to safety, innovation, technical excellence, customers and the environment.

Melissa Valgardson and Tracy Duncan, who won a TransAlta President’s Award for Innovation for developing WOPR.