Wind Farms Need This Surprising Upgrade For Better Safety and Efficiency

Renewable energy is seeing unparalleled progress and adoption, with wind energy responsible for much of that growth. In 2020, the U.S. saw an increase in new offshore wind installations totaling 5,519 megawatts, as well as a surge in the global pipeline that more than tripled to 26,529 megawatts.

Then last year, wind generation was up 14% year-over-year, which—when paired with solar power—generated an unprecedented 10% of overall global electricity. The wind energy industry is alive and thriving.

Wind and Solar Generation | Cumulus Digital Systems

To capitalize on this growth, the energy industry is supercharging turbines with efficiency upgrades. These new and improved turbines are even more powerful than before, with the ability to generate up to 20% more energy each year. This allows the turbines to be as sustainable and cost-efficient as possible, a win-win situation.  

However, these upgrades are not without risk. Because they require that bolts be placed closer together than before, it becomes more challenging to use a torque wrench to precisely tighten each bolt to the correct torque value. What’s more, these bolted connections are mission-critical in ensuring that each turbine is properly functioning. If too many bolts are improperly installed, catastrophic problems can ensue.

While these new efficiency upgrades underscore the complexity of properly installing bolts, this is not a new problem for wind turbines. 


Loose Bolts Sink Turbines 

Offshore Wind Turbines | Cumulus Digital Systems

As wind turbines grow larger and more complex than ever before, they still have their fair share of technical challenges that need to be worked out. Further, they are regularly subjected to a large amount of physical stress in the form of wind, air pressure, and humidity that can cause material fatigue.

These stressors make turbines susceptible to catastrophic failure, and because of their combination of size and speed, turbines are extremely dangerous should something go wrong. For example, a turbine at a wind farm in Oregon recently lost a blade, which was due to a blade bolt failure. Luckily, no one was injured. However, a flying blade has the capacity to cause significant damage in the right conditions. The blade in question weighed over seven tons and landed a full football field away.

In addition to being a major safety concern for the public, these failures are massively expensive. This particular instance caused a shutdown of over 200 turbines at the wind farm while a formal investigation took place. This occurred during the windiest season, which heavily cut into profits.

Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident. In Sweden, a similar issue occurred when a wind turbine that measured nearly 400 feet high collapsed. Again, this catastrophe was due to a bolt failure, this time in the tower’s lowest flange joint. At another incident in North Dakota, the same story.

The list goes on. That’s why in order to be both safe and profitable, wind turbines need more than just an efficiency upgrade. They need to start by solving the fundamental problem of bolt failure. To do this, it’s clear that a better way of installing and maintaining bolted connections is needed. That’s where a digital system comes in.  


The Current Bolt Management System 

Bolted connections are critical for ensuring the structural integrity of turbines. With so many turbine accidents caused by bolt failure, the existing system is clearly in need of an upgrade.

Currently, the bolt management systems used in the construction and maintenance of turbines leave a lot of room for error. While standard operating procedures vary from project to project, the main problem occurs during the actual tightening of bolts.

Typically, a technician is given a target torque value and uses a manual or powered torque wrench to  tighten each bolt to the assigned torque value. As they work through and tighten each bolt, they must also adhere to a tightening sequence to ensure that the load is evenly carried and that each bolt is properly stretched.

While the work is happening, the technician will usually work off memory or experience alone, which can sometimes be outdated or incorrect. This also misses out on an important opportunity to integrate quality into the bolt tightening process.

Further, there is no fast or easy way to check or verify that the work has been done correctly. Quality personnel, who are already stretched thin, must visually verify that the work has been completed and manually check bolt loads. This creates a lot of unnecessary rework and also allows problems to slip through the cracks.

This outdated system introduces additional problems for offshore wind farms. With important team members often located miles away, remotely ensuring project quality is virtually impossible.

In summary, the current system is unproductive, error-prone, and lacks transparency. 


A Better Bolt Management System 

The industry is in desperate need of a better bolt management system. Luckily, digital technologies have significantly evolved in recent years and are more than ready to meet the challenge.

To fully satisfy the stringent needs of each wind farm’s unique bolting needs, a digital solution is required that satisfies three main requirements:

  1. A mobile application that can guide workers step-by-step instructions, providing them with real-time project instructions. The app should demonstrate the right torque pattern tightening sequence, collect quality data, and generate questionnaires to integrate quality into the work process. For example, taking a picture of each bolted connection once it is complete to help ensure that the work is done right, with no visible signs of corrosion or other damage.
  2. Bluetooth-connected digital tools that allow a target torque value to be set and reached for all bolted connections. Each and every bolt is automatically tightened to specification, then the data is stored on the cloud to use for future maintenance and work audits.
  3. A digital control center where all work progress can be reviewed remotely. This is essential for offshore wind farms, and also has the added benefit of streamlining work for quality personnel.  

This three-part digital solution can help ensure that each bolt is properly tightened each and every time. This prevents dangerous bolt failure and expensive rework from occurring. It also creates a digital record of all work that occurs to simplify any and all future maintenance work that must be done.

Bolted connections are only getting more complicated as the industry makes efficiency upgrades. Projects that leverage digital bolt management technology to simplify construction and maintenance will see better safety, sustainability, and profit.

For more information, schedule a demo to see what this might look like for your wind project.