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Renewables vs. non-renewables: the practical approach to energy conservation

Posted by Niall Sheedy on 15th July 2014

With so much data available at our fingertips, I can now enjoy a cycle to EML Wildfire through Richmond Park while Strava and Fitbit automatically compile all the unnecessary stats of my morning commute. I can even check my performance level via a lovely computer generated graph so I can over-analyse my cycle and extrapolate that my performance level dropped slightly as I slowed down to gaze blissfully at a herd of grazing deer.

If this technology is available to a fairly basic iPhone 4/4s, is it not a bit odd that we don’t have this sort of performance data available to renewable energy yet? Is this simply an oversight, lack of information, or resistance to change of existing work practices?

On a further note, if we are collectively serious about reducing our reliance on renewable resources then the change should take place with the multi-nationals first before the effects trickle down. Rules and law dictate culture. Of course we all have a fundamental responsibility to protect the earth but the bottom line is that a person’s financial circumstances and restrictions precede altruistic goals. Speaking in extremes, you can’t expect a single Mum on social welfare to pioneer climate change when a multinational offers a cheaper alternative to heat her flat. This bottom line is certainly looked upon by anti-green lobbyists who know that as long as they have a cheaper alternative, moral authority is not enough to inspire collective action for change.

Glaring inefficiencies

 I heard recently that wind turbine operators must mix scheduled maintenance with unplanned call-outs, resulting in engineers wasting time looking at systems and equipment that is functioning perfectly well – and being dragged away from more pressing issues. And unlike power stations where there is plenty of staff on-site, wind turbines are deployed in remote rural areas and offshore wind farms – making maintenance difficult with trips needing to be planned heavily in advance and solely dictated by local weather conditions. For example, in the North Sea, the offshore industry is investing in maintenance vessels that can access a turbine in heavier seas so that servicing visits can be made more often (some turbines are almost inaccessible for six months of the year). But is this addressing the root of the problem? How about we question the fundamentals, just to be different….

Why power electronics can help the cause

Power electronics can help tackle these issues by enabling a preventative maintenance approach to identify a failing part. When there is little warning that something is wrong, the ability to see how these essential parts are performing would not only improve performance, but spot when things need addressing before it’s too late. In an offshore installation this would also enable the part to be replaced during routine maintenance in better weather conditions, ensuring that availability is kept high. It seems hard to believe that this is not already a fundamental feature of wind turbine technology.

This is a new area and a new concept for the power electronics industry and the IGBT –  a power electronics device responsible for switching electric power and a crucial element in most modern appliances. The inability to test performance or compare to external factors, and what is happening elsewhere ought to be a thing of the past. New and innovative technologies are being developed to ensure greater insight is gained into the IGBT and operators have a better understanding of their power electronics components.

Let’s talk money- Incentivising the big players in the energy industry

Clearly a combination of guilt and protest does little to stop anti-green/non-renewable multi-nationals from exploring alternative, more sustainable energy consumption, and strongly worded letters and on-site protests by Greenpeace are part of the daily life of an oil or gas engineer. So if wind energy companies can show insurers that they use preventative maintenance based on this technology, in theory it should substantially reduce premiums in an industry highly expensive to insure, with lost revenue incurred by energy production forecasts riddled with the unpredictability factor. Still listening? Power electronics companies are already working with some big names in the renewable energy space to make this happen and we expect to see more companies follow suit. The benefits are not just tangible, but quantifiable. One simply can’t afford not to.

Photo credit.

Niall Sheedy