5 Critical Challenges of Wind Energy and Potential Solutions

5 Critical Challenges of Wind Energy and Potential Solutions

4 Oct 2023 Written by Naomi Stol Zamir

The wind energy industry is growing rapidly, powered largely by a global push to reach net-zero emissions. However, there are critical problems with turbines and the overall industry that need to be overcome to allow wind farms to keep growing and contribute to the pivot to renewable energy.

Many of these challenges require solutions from upstream suppliers or are on the shoulders of OEMs. However, wind farm managers can solve some of them by pursuing an effective digitization strategy.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the industry’s specific challenges and how leading-edge solutions can help solve many of them.

Top Wind Energy Problems Facing the Industry

Governments worldwide have set net-zero emissions goals, while organizations across most industries have made similar commitments. Achieving these goals requires more renewable energy, but there are several challenges of wind energy that need solutions as the industry continues to grow. Let’s break down some of these challenges.

1. Rising Cost of Materials for Manufacturing and Replacement

The cost of materials used to manufacture new turbines and replacement parts has skyrocketed recently. Steel is one of the core materials used in turbines and plenty of it, but in 2022, the price of steel increased by 86% in the U.S. and 53% in Europe.

Additionally, many newer turbines with direct-drive turbines require rare earth elements (REEs) to make permanent magnets. China produces 63% of the world’s REEs and 92% of rare earth magnet production, but the country also has its wind and renewable projects consuming these resources.

What does this mean for wind farms? Starting a new wind farm is more expensive, while some replacement parts for existing turbines are more expensive and may become harder to find.

2. Availability of Lubricants for Maintenance

Wind turbines depend on lubricants to operate, and replacing these oils is a frequent, necessary maintenance task. However, the availability of these lubricants has rapidly become a significant issue as wind farms grow and become increasingly important for net-zero emission goals.

In a 2022 study, it was established that the most in-demand lubricants globally are:

  • 57% – Gear oil
  • 27% – Hydraulic oil
  • 16% – Grease

Fully replacing these oils is only necessary every 7-10 years, according to the study, but turbines still require annual top-ups. This segment of the lubricant market is expected to grow by 40% in the next 10-15 years, which can present a problem for wind farms’ profitability if supply does not keep up.

3. Managing Common Wind Turbine Maintenance Problems

Turbine maintenance is a top priority for wind farm managers while contributing significantly to operating expenses. A few of the top wind turbine maintenance problems are:

  • Turbine blade maintenance: Proper blade maintenance goes a long way in preventing replacement and staying efficient throughout their lifespan. Inspecting turbine blades, analyzing results, and determining maintenance schedules allow wind farms to identify and correct any issues before they escalate further.
  • Yaw brake replacement: Yaws are an essential component that assists in guiding the orientation of the turbine towards the wind. The brakes secure the position once adjusted, making it a crucial turbine component. Turbines can have up to 20 yaw brakes, making replacing them necessary and time-intensive.
  • Cleaning and removing yaw brake dust: The dust yaw brakes create through regular use must also be contained and removed on top of replacing brakes. If left unchecked, yaw brake dust can contaminate the environment. Choosing the right brake pad material and staying on top of managing its dust is crucial for a sustainable operation.
  • Resurfacing brake disks: Yaw brakes are large and heavy while servicing them requires completely disassembling the turbine nacelle. Small imperfections in brake services can create premature deterioration, so inspecting and resurfacing brake pads as necessary extends their lifespan and delays complete replacement.

There are certainly many other maintenance problems that must be effectively managed. Otherwise, improperly maintained turbines will likely result in unplanned downtime, which is more expensive to repair and decreases the farm’s total energy output.

4. OEMs Overwhelmed by Warranty Claims

Wind turbine OEMs anticipate a specific amount of warranty claims every year. However, several OEMs have recently been overwhelmed by receiving more warrant claims than anticipated.

For example, GE Renewable Energy reported a US$2.2 billion loss, with the company citing warranty provisions as a significant cause of these losses.

This problem will undoubtedly affect several aspects of the industry. Only time will tell exactly how OEMs will respond, but anything from stricter warranties to cutting costs in manufacturing is possible.

5. Technology Gaps Throughout the Industry

Many wind farms have yet to embrace leading-edge technologies to assist in inspections and enable predictive maintenance. Adopting the right tools and integrating them into core processes is crucial to understanding when specific components need to be maintained.

Additionally, even those who have adopted new tech are faced with managing different dashboards and systems throughout normal operations.

Creating seamless integrations between different tools will go a long way in opening up access to data, encouraging collaboration between teams, and making managing wind farms more streamlined.

Digitization Addresses Many of These Core Problems

Many issues facing the wind industry can be solved with digitization. While some of the challenges we explored above are in the hands of OEMs or broader market conditions, some of them can be tackled by wind farm managers directly.

Digitization, or digital transformation, allows wind farms to step into the future and overcome critical challenges to remain cost-effective and profitable. Solutions like autonomous drone inspections and digital twins allow deeper insights into each turbine.

Adopting new software and hardware throughout the operation can benefit individual wind farms and the industry overall. A few potential benefits include:

  • Cost Management through Data Analytics: Implementing a digitization strategy can involve the use of data analytics to optimize the process of predictive analytics in anticipating maintenance needs, reducing downtime, and optimizing the lifespan of turbines. This can lead to more efficient use of materials and resources, mitigating the impact of rising material costs.
  • Managing OEM Warranty Claims: Digital Twins enable continuous monitoring of the turbine’s operational parameters. This allows for early detection of potential faults, reducing the number of warranty claims. Additionally, the insights gained from digital twins can inform improvements in turbine design and manufacturing processes to enhance reliability.
  • One Central Platform to Manage Data from Various Technologies: Digital Twins can serve as a central hub for providing a unified platform that can aggregate data from various systems through partner API. This centralized view enhances collaboration between teams and facilitates data-driven decision-making. By using Digital Twins, wind farm operators can manage and monitor different components seamlessly, reducing the complexity associated with managing multiple dashboards and systems.

Navigating Challenges with Digital Twins for Efficiency and Sustainability

Every industry is facing growing pains as it fully matures. Even though wind turbines aren’t a new invention, the industry itself is still growing rapidly to meet energy needs and work towards net-zero goals. Challenges go hand-in-hand with this growth, and they need to be overcome to ensure profitability and long-term sustainability.

While many of these challenges are the responsibility of OEMs or reflective of overall market conditions, some of them can be tackled by wind farm managers directly through effective digitization.

Digital Twin technology emerges as a powerful solution, creating virtual replicas of turbines, enabling efficient turbine maintenance with AI-powered inspection analytics, early detection of faults for warranty claim reduction, and streamlined aggregation of data from different systems.

By embracing digital twin strategies, the wind industry can enhance operational efficiency, reduce costs, and contribute significantly to global renewable energy goals.

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