February 1, 2021 — Industry Trends
Virtual control rooms should be 'new normal' in flexible future
The Covid-19 crisis has forced companies to adopt flexible working in a way many would not have dreamt possible before the pandemic. In this article, we look at the how virtual control centres fit with the evolutions we see in work and technology.
Technical Sales Engineer, Greenbyte
We are at a critical moment. The rollout of vaccines means that we have gone into 2021 with hope that we finally have a way out of the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the world we emerge back into will be much changed. The last 12 months are going to shape our attitudes to work and technology for years to come. The wind and solar industries may have been insulated from the pandemic’s worst effects, but they are not immune from its broader changes to work practices.
The watchwords of this new normal will be flexibility and resilience. Research shows that seven out of ten employers want to retain home working after Covid-19, and that eight out of ten workers want to retain more flexibility over their hours. This will mean that companies need to embrace technology that supports their staff to work flexibly, and enables them to be less reliant on physical buildings. The changes will be huge.
This will affect the ways that companies look to manage their wind and solar assets.
In practice, we believe it will mean less focus on physical control rooms or technical teams working together in offices every day, and more focus on asset management systems in the cloud. This is where the ‘virtual control room’ can play a big role.
In this article, we will explain the concept of the ‘virtual control room’ and how these can support changing working practices. We will also share insights from two firms that have embraced such systems, and share links to further information. This will help you to shape your approach to asset management in 2021 and beyond.
What is a virtual control room?
Traditionally, a control room is a physical building where owners and operators of wind and solar farms can go to monitor their performance of their assets using large data displays.
Operators use these rooms – and the data they get in them – to monitor the state of their projects and power generating units, which are crucial to performance. They are also usually the first point of contact with the grid operator and the emergency services, and they tend to be staffed by experts around the clock.
A ‘virtual control room’ is similar to this, only without the physical room!
The operator still has access to asset performance data, but they access it using an online system such as the Greenbyte Platform. This gives them figures they need to identify improvements and coordinate maintenance work in diverse portfolios.
These virtual control rooms enable operators to do four main things.
First, centralize data from their assets in real time and on a continuous basis. This is particularly important when working remotely as control rooms often include ten screens, whereas at home you might be working on one or two. Remote workers need a compact overview that a virtual control room can provide.
Second, detect problems at their assets in real time, and share alerts via email or smartphone. For example, US operator Skyline Renewables told us that one of the main benefits of our system was the automated alerts to identify anomalies.
Third, virtual control rooms help operators to analyze performance on an asset-by-asset basis to calculate curtailment, lost production and its contractual obligations.
And fourth, they help boost performance by enabling owners and operators to carry out a quick preliminary investigation of their assets so that the right information can be transferred to the field. This helps firms to respond quickly to urgent problems.
In short, virtual control rooms provide similar services as physical control rooms, but with the added benefit that it can all be done remotely.
Who uses virtual control rooms today?
Historically, we have seen virtual control rooms are a popular option for independent power producers, which have fewer staff dedicated to operations and maintenance than a large utility. Virtual control rooms help them to carry out mission-critical work without the cost of managing a physical building and staffing it 24/7, while also giving management teams greater oversight of the assets in their portfolios.
In the early days of Covid-19, it meant that companies could move to remote working without disruption. That’s what Polish developer Mashav Energia told us last year, as it was able to transition quickly despite limitations on its day-to-day activities.
But we believe these systems will become more valuable to larger operators too as a global shift to more flexible working practices remains. This is already underway.
For example, a report by the construction company Sir Robert McAlpine, which owns renewable energy RES Group, and flexible working charity Flex Appeal published a report in November featuring a survey of 1,420 employers. It found that 72% wanted to keep working from home, including 82% in the business services sector, and 70% of employers want to keep working flexitime, including 79% in business services.
It also reported that there was most demand for these changes in larger companies, which tells us that some Covid-era working practices will remain after the pandemic is over. This is just one of many surveys that show that flexibility is here to stay.
These are not the only benefits of virtual control rooms though. They are also a great example of how artificial intelligence can support human workers to optimise assets, but with the humans still empowered to take the decisions that add most value.
In renewables, we expect asset management teams to continue demanding access to these advanced insights and project data from wherever they are working.
Virtual control rooms can make that a reality.