Article - Greenbyte

Renewables, digitalization and growing pains

Each year, some of the most talented people in renewable energy meet at the Wind and Solar O&M conference in Munich to network, promote new products and services, and, most importantly, talk about trends in the industry and where it's heading.

Renewables are certainly not the new kid on the block anymore, but the industry is still young and developing rapidly. In human years, renewables would likely be somewhere in the late teens, constantly learning new things, changing incredibly quickly and on the verge of adulthood. As subsidies are phased out and renewables find their footing and new ways to support themselves, they are also starting to outpace the older generations of coal, gas and nuclear.

Growing up brings great power, great opportunities, but also great challenges.

Software fragmentation

The discussions that took place in Munich last week, show an industry that is facing fundamentally different challenges from just a few years ago. The days when excel spreadsheets and home-brew software were enough to operate fleets of wind turbines are certainly behind us. Today, wind and solar owners and operators rely increasingly on professional software to manage their assets for maximized output. Software is no longer an afterthought for energy companies but the very core of modern wind and solar energy production. The fact that software is eating the world is nothing new, but the consequences can sometimes be difficult to foresee.

The need and increased reliance on data to make decisions, big or small, has led to a boom in the energy software sector (which Greenbyte is a part of). What was once a handful of software providers and applications has spiralled to hundreds. Today’s energy companies typically rely on multiple software vendors and solutions to support their increasingly ambitious growth strategies. At the same time, energy software providers are becoming more specialized, offering drone inspection software, predictive analytics, contract management, forecasting tools and life extension solutions just to name a few. Most of these software applications are purchased, used and maintained separately, and often operate in isolation, meaning they do not speak to each other or exchange vital information.

This is having the opposite desired effect, instead of providing efficiencies to scale, they are overwhelming providers with data, exacerbating silos and overcomplicating workflows. Energy companies are getting more and more frustrated about the situation and there does not seem to be a clear solution in sight. It is fair to assume that whoever can harmonize the software experience by bridging gaps between applications and data will emerge as a winner in this sector.

Predictive analytics hype

Another hot topic in Munich was predictive analytics and adjacent subjects (big data, machine learning, digital twin to name a few buzzwords). The growing interest in this field may not come as a surprise to anyone, but the increase in popularity from just a year ago in the renewable energy industry is hard to ignore. Hardware companies, O&M providers, turbine manufacturers, utilities and software companies all seem to be dipping their toes in the predictive analytics pond. The fact that advanced data analytics are now on everybody’s agenda is a clear sign of maturity for the industry as a whole. At the same time it is quite unlikely that predictive analytics are well-suited for all intended applications. It is equally unlikely that all companies pursuing it have the resources and know how to stay competitive in this field as the competition heats up. When the predictive analytics hype has settled, many attempts will likely have failed and few but highly useful applications will remain.

Building advanced analytics requires not only resources and know how, but useful sample data, something that can be hard to come by without industry expertise. Those who have access to large quantities of independent, qualitative data, and can show product evolution and adaptability are in a better position to lead the predictive analytics wave.

Like humans growing up, gradually becoming smarter, better informed and more well-rounded versions of ourselves (most of us anyway), the renewable energy industry is on a similar trajectory. As issues with data and software fragmentation are ironed out and truly useful applications for predictive analytics and other bleeding edge technologies are established, the industry will benefit and mature as a result.

Adulthood may be right around the corner after all.