Wind farm operators could catch a symbolic glimpse of their future in the Marvel character Iron Man and his ability to distil vast quantities of data into what really counts for his daily business as a superhero, a Recharge event on digitalisation in offshore wind was told.

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The comic book crusader’s high-tech suit is a useful metaphor of how digitalisation can help raise performance to new levels if data is processed and presented in the right way, said John Obrecht, a senior data scientist for clean energy OEM and software group Envision Energy.

“The suit is great, but what’s really cool is the software, and the interaction he has with that software,” Obrecht told Recharge’s latest digital roundtable, Digitalisation and the Future of Offshore Wind.

“He has this amazing ability to carry out advanced sensing, putting that information into a data-rich dashboard – that’s one man doing so much.”

In the real-world, the ability of digitalisation to simplify the work of wind farm operators with user-friendly interfaces that allow plants “to do more with less” is “part of what I imagine the future of wind power to be”.

Obrecht’s comments came as a panel of industry experts chaired by Recharge Editor-in-Chief Darius Snieckus examined the key role digitalisation is set to play in driving output up and costs down in the next generation of mega-scale offshore wind farms, with discussion spanning ‘digital twins’ for turbines, advanced condition monitoring, robotics and improved wind farm performance, among other issues.

Rikke Pedersen, digitalisation project manager for Norwegian energy group Equinor, told the Recharge event how leveraging the benefits of digitalisation is core to the success of the Dogger Bank offshore wind farm it is co-developing with SSE Renewables, which at 3.6GW will be the world’s largest when it enters service off the UK using 13MW turbines from GE Renewable Energy.

Equinor is bringing digitalisation know-how into offshore wind that it gained in the oil & gas sector, Pedersen explained, while warning that one of the key challenges is putting in place the processes and organisational structures needed to extract value from the vast amounts of data generated from a project as big as Dogger Bank.

“Digitalisation is 10% IT, 20% digital processes and 70% change management, and change management takes time,” Pedersen said.

She also warned that while much discussion of the benefits of digital data focuses on the turbine, the industry needs to look at benefits for the whole value-chain, noting: “We don’t produce any energy if the cable fails or if there’s a problem with the HVDC [high voltage director current transmission] system.”

Michael Wilkinson, global segment leader for energy digitalisation at DNV GL – Energy, said the global technology group’s work with the industry suggests “lack of digital mindset” is a “major barrier” to reaping the full benefits of the new opportunities on offer.

It has also identified a gap in the combination of digital technology skills and core engineering knowledge. “It’s maybe taking a little time for universities to bring through the next generation of young engineers with the right combination of skills,” said Wilkinson.

Chris Hill, operational performance director at the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, said its work in digitalisation now spans a wide range of areas well beyond the turbine, for example encompassing advanced communications. “If we’re talking about wind farms as far away as Dogger Bank and the amount of data that’s going to be generated, how is that data safely and securely transmitted back to shore in a reliable way?”

Hill also offered a cautionary note over the need to focus on the data that’s really valuable, to help avoid “overload” for the renewable energy professionals struggling to deal with it.

“I’ve heard stories of people who operate wind farms [say] that there’s so much data coming at them that they end up turning sensors off,” said Hill.