The Complexity of Green Energy - How Utilities Can Maintain Sustainable Generating Technologies

Sustainability is top of mind for utilities. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have moved beyond the pilot stage and have proven to be viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels.

But as these new technologies are introduced to the electrical grid, they add complexity to an already vast and complex system. Unique maintenance requirements, additional equipment and assets, and the need for specialized skills all mean that utilities must consider the way green energy sources will affect their performance when deciding to invest.

This article will highlight some of the ways that thermal & visual sensors can overcome the challenges associated with expanding wind and solar capacity by reducing maintenance costs, enhancing reliability, and mitigating the risk of asset failure.

The Rise of Green Energy - From Potential to Proven

Green energy sources such as wind and solar were once viewed as technologies with potential. They were exciting because they presented an opportunity to move away from high-emitting energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. But, until recently, they had yet to prove that they were economically viable or efficient enough to make up a significant portion of the energy mix.

Today, sustainable energy sources not only compete with traditional energy sources, but in many cases surpass them.

This rise in popularity stems from several factors. First, in many cases, government initiatives and targets have pushed utilities to invest more heavily in renewables. The Canadian Government has set a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while the US has recently declared it’s intention to achieve full decarbonization by 2035. 

Elsewhere, Australia aims to increase the share of low-carbon generation to 82 percent by 2030, up from only 27 percent in 2023. 

Though important, governments alone are not driving the transition. Building and operating renewable generating facilities such as wind and solar are now largely more cost-effective than traditional coal-fired power plants. In fact, a 2021 Deloitte report showed that up to 91 percent of existing US coal-fired capacity had operating costs higher than new solar or wind.

Looking at wind, for example, only 20-25 percent of the total production costs can be attributed to ongoing operations, compared to as much as 60 percent for a natural gas-fired plant. These higher operating costs become even more relevant as fuel prices continue to fluctuate in response to global volatility.  

The Impact of Renewables on Energy Infrastructure

Despite the advantages and obvious need to shift toward renewable energy, introducing new generating sources also introduces more complexity. Utilities now have a mixture of traditional (hydro, nuclear, and fossil–fuel) generating assets and new technologies (wind, solar, and others) that have completely different behaviours.

This mix, especially as utilities maintain and support existing investments, requires greater coordination, not only to ensure that energy is available to meet changes in demand, but also to conduct maintenance, repairs, and upgrades on a wider range of equipment.

Consider the maintenance requirements for wind turbines. It’s not a simple task to dispatch a technician to conduct an inspection. They need special training to work at heights and must be familiar with both the internal and external components of the turbine. As a result, a single turbine can take hours to inspect, and with larger wind farms having tens or hundreds of turbines, this quickly becomes unsustainable. In the same way, large solar farms spread across wide geographic areas require a significant ongoing effort to maintain and repair. 

Beyond the generating assets, newly installed capacity requires other equipment and infrastructure. Many new facilities are deploying large-scale batteries to overcome the challenges of intermittency associated with wind and solar. But these batteries introduce further maintenance requirements and demand different skills and expertise from the technicians who work on them. 

Finally, the added capacity must be transmitted and distributed to customers to be useful. This can be done in several ways depending on the needs of the utility. For example, they may decide to run a single, high-voltage line to a larger transmission substation, or they may decide to connect multiple lower-voltage lines to distribution centres closer to the point of use.

Regardless of the approach, each new connection introduces new assets and additional points of failure that must be managed by the utility.

How Thermal & Visual Sensors Ease the Transition to Renewables

Given this added complexity, utilities need to shift away from traditional, scheduled maintenance. Instead of relying on expensive truck rolls and frequent physical inspections, thermal and visual sensors allow utilities to conduct remote monitoring of high-value and critical assets throughout the electrical grid.

With continuous, 24/7 data, utilities can detect potential issues and diagnose the cause before a catastrophic failure occurs. Repairs can then be prioritized based on the severity of the issue, ensuring technical resources are deployed efficiently and enhancing the overall reliability of the grid.

For example, utilities can deploy sensors to monitor the condition of wind turbines without sending technicians into difficult and hazardous environments. Similarly, sensors installed at remote substations can automatically detect hotspots on connection points or high-value assets such as the transformer that would otherwise be missed in between inspections.

Reducing Emissions While Reducing Maintenance Costs

It’s clear that renewable energy sources will play an increasingly important part of the global energy mix in the coming decades as governmental initiatives, falling costs, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drive the transition away from fossil fuels.

By improving visibility into the entire electrical grid, from the wind and solar farms through to the transmission and distribution substations, thermal & visual sensors allow utilities to reduce maintenance costs, enhance reliability, and be better positioned to capture the full benefits of renewable generating technologies.