Article - Greenbyte

February 3, 2020 — Industry Trends

The Spaghetti Syndrome, understanding your renewables investment

You’re getting the quarterly report from the operators of your wind farm, and despite your best attempts, you’re not entirely sure what this sea of numbers means. Things seem more or less fine — until you spot that last month there were some dramatic drops in energy production.

Magnus Henriksson

Your concentration is flagging, to put it mildly. You’re getting the quarterly report from the operators of your wind farm, and despite your best attempts, you’re not entirely sure what this sea of numbers means. Things seem more or less fine — until you spot that last month there were some dramatic drops in energy production. All the turbines shut down, for entire nights at a time. This is not good news for profits; you ask what went wrong. Scratching their heads (and frankly a little surprised that you noticed), the operators explain that they were faced with an unusual error message: “park control — turbines stopped”. It’s a mystery, they say. And if they can’t solve it, then how can you?

The renewables industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and that’s a wonderful thing. As demand grows, investment floods in and portfolios diversify, an expanding repertoire of manufacturers is adding products to the market. This leaves us with a lot of options. It also leaves us with a lot of data in a lot of different formats — and a lot of headaches. Collecting and organizing this data is a feat in its own right, let alone drawing any useful, bigger-picture conclusions from it. This is what we not-so-lovingly dub ‘the Spaghetti Syndrome’.

Take control of your data

The impenetrability of this tangled mess of data means financial owners are at the mercy of the operators who have the time and technical knowledge to unravel it. Relying on delayed, convoluted and often not-so-transparent reporting from operators, financial decision-makers simply aren’t able to, well, make financial decisions — not the right ones, at any rate. Greenbyte turns this jumble of information into clear, understandable, instant insights so that investors and owners can take the wheel, confidently call the shots, and get a real grasp on making maximum profit from renewables — before their competitors do.

Large, diverse portfolios of renewable energy assets can be as complicated as they are lucrative. We might be talking just wind turbines, or perhaps solar parks are also involved. Whether we’re dealing with one or both asset classes, larger portfolios are likely to involve products from a range of manufacturers. This is especially true of wind farms, where the idiosyncratic conditions of each location call for a specific type of turbine. The problem? Each manufacturer has their own software platform for presenting data. And while they’re all-powerful platforms, they don’t play very nicely together.

Translate this problem to the solar side, and you face the even less inviting task of deciphering data visualization from roughly 900 inverter manufacturers.

So not only does each site contain a number of inverters, a lot of these inverters will be churning out data in different formats. And that’s just one site — many operators are managing several sites, perhaps spread right across the country, even the globe. You can see how the mission of just collecting the data becomes pretty daunting, pretty quickly. In fact, some operators have told us that an entire week of their working month can be eaten up by the ‘simple’ task of bringing data together. And data collection is meant to be the easy part, right?

Act when it matters most

While this process remains so labor-intensive, it will fall solely on the shoulders of the operators themselves. The problem here is that financial owners are left pretty detached from what’s actually going on. They don’t have a picture of how efficiently the wind turbines or solar panels are being used, and so they can’t intervene to make decisions that will benefit the bottom line in the long run. Only those with their boots on the ground have instant access to the numbers that reveal how an asset is actually performing.

Operators are usually reporting to financial owners on a monthly or quarterly basis. This means that weeks can pass between a lull in productivity or a glitch in operation, and the opportunity to actually do something about it. In other words, the chance to remedy a problem has often come and gone before decision-makers even know it’s happened. The result? Investment managers and financial owners are forced to take a reactive approach to make the most of their renewable energy assets, and the reaction time can be painfully slow. This means inefficient energy generation and unnecessary financial loss.

Keep it honest

Another predicament is that the reporting from operators isn’t always entirely transparent. When access to information lies firmly at one end of the value chain, those at the other end need it to be relayed accurately and honestly. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a problem. In reality, however, human nature and corporate hierarchy come into play. The distance between financial owners and the data itself allows for some creative reporting on behalf of the operators.

These operators are on the ground, taking care of complex machinery, 365 days a year, whatever the weather. Their focus is on fixing technical issues in the short term. Their priority is to meet the specific KPIs their managers have given them, and in order to do so, they may be tempted to report data in a somewhat ‘flavored’ way. Understandable, perhaps, but disastrous for the overall financial success of the portfolio. As long as on-the-ground operators are the sole gatekeepers to crucial information, nobody can make well-informed decisions to ensure long-term profitability.

Technical data vs. financial output

Once the data — accurate or otherwise — has finally reached the financial decision-makers, then comes the tricky part: getting these numbers to actually mean something. It can be really tough to measure swathes of technical data against actual financial output and use that to make the right decisions.

It isn’t just the variation in asset manufacturers that makes this information so hard to interpret; asset class also plays a huge role. A key point to grasp here is that there’s a big difference between how solar parks and wind farms are managed. As the two trendiest heavy-weights of the renewables boom, they tend to be grouped together. But in practical terms, these are two very different animals. It makes sense when you think about it: while solar panels are entirely static, wind turbines are an ensemble of moving parts. Naturally, this means operation, maintenance and monitoring for a solar park is a totally different ball game than for a wind farm — and it’s not easy to create software or reporting systems that are equally good at keeping on top of both.

You may end up with a mixed bag of hardware that nobody is really responsible for — but once you’ve made the purchase and signed a few documents, you’re on your own.

But perhaps the most important difference between the two is the relationship an owner has with the manufacturer. When you acquire a wind farm, you enter into a ‘marriage’ with the company that built it. Take well-known leaders in the field, Vestas, for example. You buy a Vestas turbine, and you’re signing up for a 20-year relationship of direct contact and regular meetings. Vestas will provide you with everything from technical troubleshooting to spare part supply to IT system maintenance. When you buy a solar park, however, your contact with the manufacturer is limited to a one-off transaction. If wind farm purchase is a marriage, then solar park purchase is an app date.

And just like with an app date, when you acquire a solar park, you never quite know what you’re getting yourself into. Solar assets can be bought, sold, bundled together with other assets and re-sold, time and time again, more real estate than machinery. You may end up with a mixed bag of hardware that nobody is really responsible for — but once you’ve made the purchase and signed a few documents, you’re on your own. With over 500 solar panel manufacturers out there, all providing different types of data and often fairly poor documentation, sorting out this mess and monitoring performance properly is no mean feat.

Even when dealing with a major-league wind turbine manufacturer, such as GE or Siemens, messy data can still be a hurdle. While these larger companies do offer repair and maintenance services, it can be a challenge for owners — especially those with smaller portfolios — to make themselves heard and get the attention they require. Clear data is needed to back up a claim or illustrate a problem, but it’s hard to make your case with a muddle of numbers that you can’t even make much sense of yourself.

Can you picture the pasta yet? The bottom line is this: as long as financial shot-callers depend on someone else to understand things for them, they risk making the wrong decisions and ultimately, losing out to their competitors. No matter how many times they switch to a different operator, sooner or later they come up against the same tangled ball of spaghetti.

Time to untangle the spaghetti

If only all this data were easy to understand, even for those who are dipping their toes in the sea of renewable MWs. If only decision-makers could clearly and instantly see the truth of a situation and make well-informed, timely choices that benefited everyone. If only it were easy to draw bigger-picture conclusions from a spine-tinglingly long technical report. If only someone would untangle that damn spaghetti.

Well, ‘if only’ got us thinking ‘what if’. After years of collaborating closely with our clients, we’ve come up with some serious spaghetti-detangling software that empowers financial owners and investment managers to take charge of their renewables portfolios.

We’ve simplified everything into a simple dashboard that allows you to see the particular insights you’re interested in, updated as often as you require. Instead of waiting six to eight weeks for a report that’s standardized to suit your operator, you can get values generated every ten minutes — even every few seconds — that are customized to your specific needs. A ‘yesterday’ view saves you from having to delve into your inbox to catch up on what happened the previous day or over the weekend. You can even set up your own notifications to alert you to specific problems as they happen — if a certain number of your turbines aren’t producing as much energy as expected, for example. In short, your approach is no longer reactive. Instead, it’s proactive and even pre-emptive, thanks to Greenbyte’s forecasting capabilities. And it’s all presented in a way that’s easy to understand.

Crucially, our software helps to ensure long-term profitability. While operators are caught up in the here-and-now urgency of fixing an issue each time it occurs, asset managers and financial owners using Greenbyte are finally able to identify the root cause behind an issue, and prevent it from becoming chronic before it causes permanent damage to the machinery. Ultimately, this makes maintenance more efficient and lengthens the life of an asset. A wind turbine, for example, should ideally make it to the ripe old age of 25 years. And a long-lived turbine is a profitable one.

Our software has saved money for our clients in ways even we couldn’t have predicted. When a third-party construction vehicle severed an electrical line and left our client’s wind farm without power, the potential financial loss was tremendous. Fortunately, Greenbyte was able to say exactly how tremendous; based on wind speed reading, our software calculated precisely how much energy would have been generated had the export cable line not been dug up. This allowed our client to file an insurance claim and avoid a nasty blow to their bottom line.

Which brings us back to our mystery error message: “park control — turbines stopped”. This happened to another client of ours. What was going on? Using Greenbyte insights and a little detective work, our client realized that the turbines weren’t misbehaving at all. They’d been programmed to shut down during summer nights with low winds. The reason? Not obvious, but simple: to save bats from — not to be too graphic — meeting an unfortunate end. Comical as this may sound, it’s a very serious issue that can have very serious financial consequences. Harming wildlife, breaching permits, creating too much noise or moving shadows that disturb neighbors — all these wind farm faux pas can result in hefty fines. Greenbyte can help asset managers and owners to navigate these limitations, keeping profitability at a maximum (and bats out of harm’s way, of course.)

This is the sort of bigger picture that it’s impossible to see when you’re depending on someone else to interpret the data for you, barely glimpsing for yourself what’s actually going on. We’ve been told that using Greenbyte for the first time is like stepping back from a collection of random brushstrokes, and realizing that you’re standing in front of the Mona Lisa. Perhaps you found those brushstrokes perfectly pleasant to look at, just as you feel perfectly comfortable with a vague grasp of how your assets are performing. But while you stand there with your nose against the canvas, others behind you will be drinking in the bigger picture of opportunity.

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