The race for scale that served to catalyse development of the international wind industry’s physical supply chain in the past decade has been well documented – and with 830GW of capacity worldwide, by the International Energy Agency’s last calculus, the success to-date speaks volumes.
This transformative growth started as the early turbine makers emerged and developed the first generation of machines. Technical issues were encountered but soon overcome. Developers demanded more scalability and reliability, and the OEMs responded again with bigger and better-engineered designs. A sprawling, global industrial supply chain took shape to support the sector as it grew.
What is less talked about is how the digital supply chain has developed to support its physical supply chain cousin. To some extent, its journey has been similar. As the wind industry faced new challenges, digital innovators and suppliers evolved to solve them. They first addressed the ‘low hanging fruit’ of day-to-day operations and maintenance (O&M) – and certain accompanying issues and inefficiencies, usually restricted to particular components.
Successes since have begat further successes. Many O&M processes have been streamlined, the parameters of condition monitoring have shifted to include more of a holistic health assessment. These changes alone have been critical to big savings on the costs of mechanical failures and replacements, something that was predicted back in 2021 when research found that transparent, whole-turbine data access would be crucial if the industry was to achieve optimal O&M decision-making.
However, many wind farm operators are using several different services for the digital monitoring of a wide array of components, producing multiple data streams that are difficult to link together and turn into actionable plans for engineers. At the same time, the functionality of each condition monitoring technology is reliant on adjacent systems, even though they come from separate suppliers, so there is an accelerating need for more integration between software and solutions.
Most of the easy ‘digital wins’ in wind have been secured. But the market is demanding more and in a much shorter time-frame.
As the industry matures, most of the easy ‘digital wins’ have been secured. But the market is demanding more and in a much shorter time-frame to meet net zero targets while keeping returns coming in.
The managing and servicing of today’s wind farms has been turned into an intimidatingly complex affair for operators. Operators have a diverse range of suppliers, each with their own systems and data silos that may not be compatible and a set of legacy systems that are not up to the job. And that’s where we expect the next chapter to occur in the rapid increase of consolidation of digital O&M solutions providers.
The need to derive more value from the data that is available will drive this. The issue is no longer too little data. Quite the opposite: too much data – and how to use it all – is the problem. Operators are finding that the highly domain-specific offerings of their digital providers are very good, but too specific to a single need or component. In addition, the range of things that operators want to monitor is expanding. Once, O&M conference agendas were dominated by discussion around drivetrains. Now, specialised monitoring solutions for pitch bearings, towers, foundations, and blade monitoring are all emerging as ‘new’ priority areas.
The message from the market is clear: digital suppliers to the wind industry have to be able to fix more than individual domain-specific problems. Operators need help packaging solutions into a coherent decision-making process to support project portfolios that are growing in size and complexity. In response, digital solutions providers are increasingly likely to consolidate, combining their technologies to be able to integrate that data and deliver value on a much large scale.
Some of this consolidation has already started: Power Factors acquired Greenbyte and 3megawatt last year and Envision Digital bought asset performance manager QOS. And equipment suppliers are vertically integrating too, as seen when NSK purchased B&K Vibro and KK Wind acquired Gram & Juhl.
But we think a much larger wave of consolidation is to come, just as it did for the turbine OEMs in the physical supply chain. The future will be a wind industry in which O&M decisions are streamlined: made centrally across whole turbine fleets, monitoring many components at once, through systems from single providers. Such a strategy will ensure that significant savings are not just achievable, but sustainable.
Independent innovations in O&M have long been the name of the game. And while the next chapter of the digital supply chain’s story is yet to be written, the untapped potential of consolidated data and expertise will prove to be a key factor in efficient and optimum wind generation, globally.
· Bruce Hall is CEO of wind engineering consultancy Onyx InSight