Lessons from the oil and gas industry could power wind energy’s future

A surprising well of ideas

Innovation sometimes comes from surprising places. The leading edges of whale fins inspired the shape of wind turbine blades. A closer look at owl feathers has engineers thinking how to make blades quieter. And the way schools of fish move through currents sparked new arrays for maximizing how turbines interact with wind.

Turbine silhouettes against the skyline at the Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.

Another unexpected source for innovation in the wind energy business has been the oil and gas industry. The wind energy industry owes much of its success to the knowledge and innovation of oil and gas producers. That’s because traditional energy companies bring decades of experience and a wealth of operational know-how to the development of wind operations. While energy from wind and petroleum might seem to be very different products, there are broad similarities in how they become marketable power sources. Experienced energy companies can bring to bear the operating efficiency, environmental impact sensitivity and focus on safety that are key elements for growing an important alternative technology such as wind power.

Turbine silhouettes against the skyline at the Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.
An engineer conducts a maintenance check at Goshen North Wind Farm in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Titan Wind Farm in Hand County, S.D., has 10 turbines with the capacity to generate 25 MW of power.
An engineer conducts a maintenance check at Goshen North Wind Farm in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Titan Wind Farm in Hand County, S.D., has 10 turbines with the capacity to generate 25 MW of power.

Booming Wind

Innovations in wind power have helped the technology’s rapid growth. At the start of 2017, the U.S. had 82 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity. Only China has more installed capacity. Wind power currently supports 100,000 American jobs—more than coal, natural gas, hydroelectric or nuclear power—and wind turbine technician is the nation’s fastest growing job.

Three U.S. states that lead in wind power (Texas, California and North Dakota) are also three of the most oil-rich states in the country. This is no coincidence. California ranks third in wind power production, North Dakota ranks eleventh and Texas, the bastion of the oil and gas industry, ranks first, producing more than 21 gigawatts (GW) of wind in 2016.

These states lead the country in wind capacity in part due to expertise. This expertise is also a primary factor in the rise of one oil and gas company to the forefront of the wind industry—BP. BP’s long experience operating in remote locations gives special insight into managing wind power, which often is installed far from existing infrastructure or an available labor supply.

“Operating a remote wind facility is fairly akin to an offshore facility,” said Alistair Warwick, a 24-year veteran of the oil and gas industry who is now vice president of Fleet Services at BP. “You have to think about how you’re going to pre-plan activities, staff and resources.”

Wind generating capacity in the lower 48 states

  • >100,000 mw
  • 5,000 mw-10,000 mw
  • 2,000 mw-5,000 mw
  • 1,000 mw-2,000 mw
  • 1 mw-1,000 mw
  • no wind capacity
  • >100,000 mw
  • 5,000 mw-10,000 mw
  • 2,000 mw-5,000 mw
  • 1,000 mw-2,000 mw
  • 1 mw-1,000 mw
  • no wind capacity

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory (2017)

“There’s been a trend in oil and gas to use technology to move control back to shore. That’s a mirror image of how we control our wind farms from a central location, many hundreds of miles from the site.”

Warwick was speaking a few yards from BP’s remote operation center, from which all of the company’s USA wind farms are monitored. There, operations technicians gaze at monitors that can control all 1,186 of BP’s wind turbines across the country. Data from those towers, along with information collected on weather and wind patterns, helps remote operators ensure all turbines are operating safely and at maximum efficiency.

Past Leaders, Thinking Ahead

Pre-planning is another operations strategy borrowed from the oil and gas playbook. Efficient operations at remote locations require construction, maintenance and staff moves to be highly choreographed. In the oil and gas industry, shutting off the flow of oil for maintenance means shutting off supply, to the tune of potentially millions of barrels a day. Similarly, careful planning of maintenance is essential to wind operations.

Oil and gas operators study historical data, specifically surges in demand, to determine the best time for maintenance—a strategy wind plant operators adapt when they observe peaks and lulls in historical average wind speeds. In both cases, timing of the required activities must be carefully worked out, sometimes months in advance. Coordination is a balancing act, said Warwick, you want to have the right maintenance equipment and staff on site at the right time, but not too much equipment sitting idle.

Foresight and pre-planning increases efficiency, but also enhances safety. While safety is a huge concern in any energy production process, it is of particular interest for wind due to its rapid expansion. When oil and gas operators became involved in wind, they were able to impose proactive safety processes on operations. A longstanding familiarity with OSHA and state regulatory agencies has allowed them to implement safety regimens that have been demonstrated as effective.

While energy from wind and petroleum might seem to be very different products, there are broad similarities in how they become marketable power sources.

At BP, for instance, the people who operate safety systems for oil and gas platforms interface directly with safety officials in wind power.

“We have taken the very hard line that we want to bring to this relatively new industry the lessons learned in 50-plus years of operating in oil and gas,” said Bea Stong, senior vice president of Health Safety Security and Environment and Risk Management. Strong spent 35 years in the oil and gas industry before moving to wind.

While energy from wind and petroleum might seem to be very different products, there are broad similarities in how they become marketable power sources.
A worker uses a radio from above during a wind turbine installation in the United States.

“We’re continuously advancing a positive safety culture at our facilities—for example, use of the buddy system so that you’re looking out for each other and nobody’s out there alone,” Stong said. “It’s surprising to me that some of these were fairly new concepts in the wind industry.”

A worker uses a radio from above during a wind turbine installation in the United States.

Weather is a significant safety factor common to both wind and oil and gas operations. BP has decades of experience in the operation of offshore oil platforms and has developed proven evacuation protocols for approaching storms. BP’s wind facilities follow similar protocols. Remote operations out of Houston’s control center allow facilities to continue harnessing energy—often at high volume during the winds that storms bring—while workers are evacuated to safety.

Safety In Numbers

Even in good weather, industrial job sites pose potential dangers to workers. Risk assessment has long been a bedrock of oil and gas safety programs, and self-verification is a concept that BP Wind is transferring from the company’s oil and gas operations, according to Stong.

“We have a program called ‘Good Catch For Safety,’ where you inspect not just your equipment, but your partners’ equipment,” said Stong. “We want people looking out for each other.”

An operator watches a crane lifting a turbine rotor at Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.

A mobile app lets workers snap photos of any equipment that needs to be repaired and and log it into the system for attention. These data points allow BP to get out in front of safety concerns before they become operational issues, a practice the company embraced in oil and gas development as well.

“We’re trying to look at leading indicators and not lagging indicators,” Stong said. “With lagging indicators, the issue or problem has already happened. We want to look at things that are more predictive, so we can implement change to avoid harm.”

An operator watches a crane lifting a turbine rotor at Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.
Two wind turbines against an evening sky on Titan Wind Farm in Hand County, S.D.
Two wind turbines against an evening sky on Titan Wind Farm in Hand County, S.D.

The adoption of mobile apps and other technologies like high‑powered computing represents significant technology transfer from oil and gas operation to wind—although in one area, wind power may be a step ahead: the use of sensors.

Sensor technology has been a driver of innovation worldwide. Oil and gas companies have raced to install sensors to give them more accurate, real-time information about mechanical stress and wear, volumetrics, dynamic flow—anything that can help rig operators keep equipment running more efficiently and predict future issues.

Operators assemble a turbine rotor at Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.

The wind industry, however, enjoys the luck of good timing. While the bulk of the world’s oil and gas production facilities have had to retrofit sensor technology, those same capabilities now can be directly incorporated into wind equipment. “Wind is a relatively young industry growing up in a high-tech world,” Warwick said. “When we construct turbines, we’re building in sensors to understand how the turbine is performing, through monitoring a wide array of operational parameters.”

“One very interesting development is the concept of a smart blade,” said Warwick. “Instrumentation is installed in the blade itself allowing direct measurement of performance and integrity of the blades. Blade repairs are a costly part of operating a wind farm, so anything we can do to increase the efficiency in the way we undertake repairs aids our economics. Very similar technology has been deployed for a decade on sub-sea equipment in the oil and gas industry. It’s the application of very similar technology to measure a different thing, but with the same objective of improving equipment integrity and performance.”

Operators assemble a turbine rotor at Cedar Creek Wind Farm in Weld County, Colo.

from wells to wind

Roll over the cards to see innovations from natural gas applied to wind energy

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Predictive Planning

Oil and gas producers study surges in demand to schedule maintenance routines.

Predictive Planning

The wind power industry studies historical data to schedule maintenance during seasonal lulls in average wind speeds.

Central Control

Centralizing control capabilities of offshore oil and gas platforms to centers onshore drives efficiency.

Central Control

Wind producers can operate facilities remotely from control centers hundreds of miles away to create more efficiency and improve safety.

Protective Protocols

Exposed to harsh weather, offshore oil and gas operators developed strict protocols in the face of incoming storms.

Protective Protocols

The wind industry has adopted similar protocols to ensure workers are safe and equipment is not damaged during severe weather.

Apps for Safety

Mobile apps allow oil and gas workers to flag equipment that needs attention.

Apps for Safety

Wind producers have developed apps that allow workers to snap photos of equipment that is out of place or in need of repair, improving safety.

Sensor Sensibility

Sensors placed in pipelines measure output volume, dynamic flow and equipment wear.

Sensor Sensibility

Wind turbine manufacturers now build sensors into blades, providing a stream of data that allows for optimized operations.

Data Discoveries

Oil and gas producers use data analytics to optimize production.

Data Discoveries

Wind producers crunch hundreds of millions of data points every day and, by spotting deviations in the patterns, can spot production issues remotely.

Remote Catches

Yet another example of the value of knowledge transferred from the oil and gas industry is the application of big data that helps BP improve the operating performance of remote wind facilities. The company collects 580 million data points from its turbines every 24 hours, from which anomalies in the performance of any turbine can be identified using data analytics.

In one recent instance, the data stream from a facility in Pennsylvania indicated a potential problem, and the team on the ground was notified. It wasn’t until they’d climbed the tower, however, that they saw a broken bolt had let the turbine’s anemometer—the instrument that measures wind speed and controls the turbine’s directional orientation—slip out of position.

There’s been a trend in oil and gas to use technology to move control back to shore. That’s a mirror image of how we control our wind farms from a central location, many hundreds of miles from the site.

— Alistair Warwick,
vice president of Fleet Services at BP

“That may sound trivial,” said Warwick, “but issues like this mean we operate that turbine at less than peak efficiency, so we lose power we could be adding to the grid. The fact that someone sitting at a desk a thousand miles away can identify a broken bolt by looking at data, something that can’t be identified from the ground, really demonstrates the value of analytics.”

Wind power, an important component of a diversified energy portfolio, will see more innovation as it matures. Breakthroughs in engineering will create even more efficient blades and turbines. Grid restructuring and better electrical storage systems will improve the way wind power is delivered to customers. The industry might also benefit from new financing models.

There’s still change to come, but don’t be surprised if a lot of it comes from the experts who guided the last half-century of energy development: oil and gas companies.