With assets installed far from shore in harsh conditions, offshore wind turbine manufacturers and project operators are turning to new digital tools to optimize performance, boost power production and minimize downtime. One such tool is the use of digital copies, or “twins,” of physical turbines to assist with real-time monitoring of offshore wind projects.

The California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC), a ratepayer-funded energy innovation research and development program, recently awarded a $2 million grant to Norwegian engineering company Aker Solutions and Cognite, an Oslo-based industrial software company, to develop a digital twin model of the physical floating offshore wind turbines that could be deployed along California’s coastline by the mid-2020s.

Aker Solutions has worked on digital twins for many industries — power, utilities, shipping, oil and gas, and manufacturing — but the new research project is its first for floating offshore wind turbines, Hans Petter Øvrevik, head of offshore wind projects and business development for the U.S., said in an interview.

The $2 million grant was awarded under an EPIC program intended to advance next-generation wind energy technologies and accelerate the maturation of the Golden State’s promising but embryonic offshore wind market.

Aker Solutions and Cognite’s NextWind Real Time Condition Monitoring platform will take representational data from typical equipment that would be used in a floating offshore wind farm to develop a blueprint for a real-world project. The aim is to generate data and insights that enable improvements in power production, operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, and environmental performance throughout the operational life of a project.

The real-world project cited as a potential case study by Øvrevik is the 100- to 150-megawatt floating offshore wind farm proposed by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority and a consortium of private companies, including Aker Solutions, for waters located more than 20 miles off the coast of the city of Eureka in Northern California.

Shashi Barla, principal analyst for the global wind supply chain and technology at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, noted that one of the consortium partners for the Redwood Coast Offshore Wind project is EDP Renewables — one of the world's largest wind asset owners/developers. That "implies some serious interest in the technology," Barla said.

GE Renewable Energy claims to have developed the first digital wind farm in 2015 and is adding digital twin functionality to the company’s Predix software platform. GE is building an app using digital twin technology that will allow engineers to make better decisions about when to run its offshore turbines at full power out at sea.

Helping to stand up California's offshore wind market

Prior to construction, digital twins allow planners to do modeling to analyze and predict O&M costs for a project. But, according to Øvrevik, “the real value outtake of this, in terms of reduced O&M costs, will come when you actually put your projects in the water, and you basically start to collect the data and process it.”

At that point, operators will be able to use the digital twin to compare the idealized, engineered condition of the equipment to the actual condition of the real-world project. Real-time monitoring through sensors embedded in the equipment should help wind farm owners avoid costly unplanned maintenance or repairs.

"You can constantly adjust and optimize how you operate and how you maintain the asset," Øvrevik told GTM.

Work on the EPIC-backed digital twin research project is expected to begin in May or June this year, with completion set for early 2023.

Øvrevik said Aker Solutions and its partners see the Redwood Coast Offshore Wind Project “as an ideal first offshore wind project for California, both in terms of size and the fact that it's in an area where there [are few] conflicts and there's a strong wish to see it happen from the local community.”

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management may hold an auction for offshore wind lease areas in California by the end of 2020.

The emergence of digital twins for offshore turbines

While not a new concept, digital twins are playing a growing role in the wind industry, WoodMac's Barla said.

“Leading turbine [manufacturers] already have digital twins of their installed fleet that will help optimize the turbine performance and lower the O&M costs over the life of the asset, predominantly on the predictive maintenance of the components,” he wrote in an email.

“The digital models help in determining the impact on the physical turbines. The virtual sensors enable monitoring of the health of the turbines — like temperature check, vibrations and any aberration in parameters compared to normal performance."