Labor Day, 4:11 a.m. A technician sitting at a bank of video monitors in Portland received an alarm that a wind turbine has stopped producing power.
That wind turbine is one of 165 at Utah’s largest wind farm, the Milford Wind project, in the desert south of Provo. Through an internet connection, the technician was able to troubleshoot the problem, much as an auto mechanic deciphers fault codes in a modern car. The data was emailed to a tech in Utah, who saw it when he reported to work the next morning. It told him what parts he needed to take before driving into the desert to fix the problem.
It may come as a surprise that operation of a wind farm in Utah is being observed by a technician in downtown Portland, 2,600 miles away. But that’s the job of a $1 million remote operations center run by Longroad Energy Partners, a Boston-based renewable energy developer with a key presence in Maine.
In a converted mill building in downtown Portland, 12 workers staff the center in shifts, 24 hours a day. They scan a wall of video monitors and computer screens that display data from 425 solar projects and six wind farms from New England to the Hawaiian Islands. Some projects are rooftop arrays on retailers while others are utility-grade power generators.
With a total capacity of 1,236 megawatts, these generators could power roughly 1.8 million homes, if they were all running full tilt at the same time.
The year-old Longroad Energy remote operations center is part of a national trend, as utility-scale solar and wind become more-substantial contributors to regional electric grids.
Last year for the first time, monthly solar and wind generation exceeded 10 percent of the country’s total electricity generation, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. With thousands of projects scattered over the landscape, often in far-off locations, remote operations centers such as this one are coming on line to keep tabs on performance, schedule routine maintenance and assess if it’s necessary to dispatch a technician to fix an immediate problem.
Ultimately, it’s about squeezing every megawatt – and every dollar – out of renewable energy projects by making solar panels and wind turbines as available as they can be, every time the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
In the case of the Utah wind farm, Longroad sells the power under contract to Los Angeles, and can get paid extra when it generates above a set amount. The 2.5-megawatt turbine that went off line can power 3,000 homes when operating at full capacity, according to Longroad, which is why scrutinizing every minute of operating time makes financial sense.
“Day after day, week after week, we do anything we can to optimize production and earn more revenue,” said Matt Kearns, Longroad’s chief development officer.
Two-thirds of Longroad’s generating capacity is solar. At first glance, solar panels don’t seem to need much attending. Look at panels mounted on a neighbor’s roof, for instance, and there’s nothing apparent to maintain.
But utility-size projects are more complex. They can have thousands of panels, often following the sun’s path through the sky via mechanical tracking. The trackers can break, although failures may not be obvious. But using analytic tools, a skilled operator can identify problems with an individual tracker by watching the power output through the day.
For example, operators can see a graphic representation of energy production, as it rises and falls with the sun. In summer, solar output and the revenue it generates should be at the maximum. But looking at data in July from the Monument substation in New Mexico, an operator in Portland noticed that one set of panels wasn’t generating as much power in the morning hours as the others.
It turned out that tracker had stalled and wasn’t pointing east during the morning. A technician in New Mexico was sent out to fix it.
Some problems evolve slowly. Over time, accumulating dust and bird droppings on the panels can reduce efficiency and cut electric output by a small fraction. At a large solar farm, even a 1 percent drop in efficiency can translate into a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, according to Longroad.
By continuously monitoring solar output, the operations center can notice when megawatt-hours are trending down and calculate when it makes sense to wash the panels, which can cost $70,000 at a large farm.
“You know what it’s going to cost to clean them and you can see the production go down,” said E.J. Martin, vice president of operations and maintenance. “So you know when it makes sense to wash.”
Wringing another 1 percent of output reflects ongoing refinements in solar and wind technology, according to Kearns. When the industry was young, solar and wind projects were sometimes unreliable add-ons, built solely to satisfy government mandates for renewable energy. Today, a growing segment of the market is being driven by corporate customers, such as Facebook, Google, ATT and Walmart, that want to run on renewable power. This has put pressure on owners and operators to make the power from their projects more available, a goal aided by more-efficient solar panels and larger, higher-capacity wind turbines.
“The industry has matured tremendously,” Kearns said. “Expectations of performance by investors is very high. There’s a premium on availability and performance.”
Those expectations extend to corporate investors such as Wells Fargo, the large banking and financial services company. Longroads is monitoring operations of 200 projects in which Wells Fargo is investing. They include utility-scale solar projects in the West, as well as panels on schools, parking lots and retail buildings, such as Walmart.
“We’re motivated to ensure they are producing as much energy as possible,” said Sam Van Dam, the bank’s renewable energy asset manager in San Francisco. “The more energy they produce, the more money they generate.”
By monitoring output, Van Dam said, Longroads has uncovered equipment trouble such as failed inverters, the component that converts direct current to alternating current for the grid. Diagnosing the details of such failures is not an isolated instance, he said.
“This kind of diagnosis is happening every day at the center, and it adds value for Wells Fargo,” he said.
The monitoring also lets manufacturers use the cumulative data to help refine new technology, according to Evan Vaughan, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.
“Operators at these facilities monitor and record the performance of hundreds or thousands of individual wind turbines on a minute-to-minute basis and harness that data to improve power generation and reduce maintenance downtime,” he said.
While Longroad monitors its own projects, it also makes money by contracting with smaller developers to watch their wind and solar farms. These companies can save money by having fewer workers dedicated to a project site, while they maximize the output of their generators through active monitoring. That makes their projects more competitive in the wholesale power market.
“When you’re bidding into these power purchase agreements, a penny can make a difference,” Martin said. “It more than pays for itself.”
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: