If a wind farm breaks down during the COVID-19 global pandemic, who will be there to fix it?

So far, much of the focus on the outbreak's impact on the renewables industry has been on factory shutdowns and the challenges of developing and building new projects on deadline in such times.

But there's another concern emerging in the industry: keeping the world's huge base of existing wind farms well maintained and operating in the field.

The concern stems in part from the ongoing proliferation of travel bans, an issue of particular concern for the EU. Many countries have enough domestic service engineers to handle routine operations and maintenance issues, but larger O&M problems often require overseas-based specialists. A total of 189 gigawatts of wind capacity is in operation across Europe today.

The European Union may move to block in-bound travel from non-European countries, but as of March 19, it's still hoping to keep its internal borders open. Still, some EU countries, such as the Czech Republic, are closing borders unilaterally. 

The WindEurope trade body has raised the issue of travel bans with the European Commission in an attempt to get ahead of the problem, said Joshua Gartland, the group's adviser on trade and competitiveness.

“We would like to see the movement of O&M personnel unhindered by any travel bans,” Gartland told GTM. “We’re a little concerned that, for example, German engineers going to work on U.K. offshore wind farms could be held up at the border. This could then have a knock-on impact for energy production."

Gartland noted hopefully that exemptions were already being made to enable the transportation of goods.

Longer downtimes for broken turbines

Beyond travel bans, a shortage of engineering staff could delay critical O&M work at projects in many markets globally.

Under normal circumstances, major corrective work — such as fixing a broken rotor or gearbox — typically takes no longer than a month, according to Daniel Liu, Wood Mackenzie's principal analyst for wind power O&M.

“Now I think we could easily see up to six months of downtime on a particular turbine, which is actually quite significant for the wind industry as a whole because it is unheard of for any asset owner to leave a turbine offline for as long as that,” Liu said.

New wind farms under construction will be the top priority amid supply-chain shortages stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. “The primary concern for spare-parts supply is not so much keeping existing turbines operating but helping new construction get into the ground as fast as possible. There's a massive backlog,” added Liu.

Many companies, renewable plant owners included, are already feeling financial pain as a result of COVID-19. In response, wind farm owners may look to trim their operating expenses, potentially becoming more conservative about sending out engineering teams — particularly in the face of official advice for workers to self-isolate.

All told, the availability of operating wind farms could fall from the current average of 95 percent to around 85 percent, Wood Mackenzie believes. 

The low end of that range still looks unlikely, Liu said. But "given that some operators might preemptively shut down turbines to prevent further damage in this environment or that some works are going to be pushed back, 85 percent is not unreasonable."

The good news is that major technical works are rare in wind O&M, with a maximum of 5 percent of turbines being hit by such issues in any given year. In other words, most wind farms will be able to function well throughout the COVID-19 crisis without regular interventions.

Operators stay upbeat for now

In the meantime, both those building new wind capacity and those operating existing projects are doing what they can to keep staff safe while meeting their commitments.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation carefully, and for now we are confident in our ability to keep our assets running,” a spokesperson for Vattenfall, which operates just under 3 gigawatts of wind capacity across five countries, told GTM.

EDF Renewables is currently building the 450-megawatt Neart na Gaoithe offshore wind farm off the east coast of Scotland.

“Our priority is to take care of the health and well-being of our people. We are committed to minimizing any impact of COVID-19 on our operations (continued construction and generation), which is necessary to honor our commitments to our suppliers and maintain supply to the grid,” the company said in an emailed statement to GTM.

“Onshore and offshore construction works for [Neart na Gaoithe] continue, and we are working closely with contractors and stakeholders to keep the situation under review in the coming weeks and days,” the statement says. Office-based staff are now working from home, and staff in the field have adapted working practices to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.