With over 225,000 wind turbines operating around the world, the requirement to repair and maintain the first generation is growing.
This problem has already given birth to the 'skyworker' - rope-hanging specialists with the tools to inspect, clean and make minor repairs to the structures. But is there an infrastructure in place to cope with the ever-increasing amount of repairs required? We look at the challenges facing the wind turbine sector and how they could be overcome.
Lack of engineers
There are a limited amount of maintenance engineers currently who can carry out repairs to turbines. These are employed by O&M (operations and management) departments of turbine manufacturers and a few specialist companies too.
Speaking about the issue to Renewable Energy Focus, Alasdair Kane, Managing Director of repair specialists Technical Wind Services (TWS) said, "We tend to recruit experienced abseilers and climbers who have been trained in composite repair. The fact that many have put themselves through courses at their own expense demonstrates their commitment to this type of work."
From this quote alone we can see two major issues that may be snagging the rope of the engineer production line. First, targeting experienced abseilers who have been trained in composite repair is a very very niche market. Secondly, finding people who will pay their course fees to learn the job will put many wannabee skyworkers off the career path.
With a growing numbers of composite wind turbines now in service, its not just the quantity of rotor blade maintenance repairs that are the problem, it is the skyworkers skill set to meet composite demands that are a problem too.
Despite the training available from O&Ms, the next generation of skyworkers have to be competent in composite materials, reinforced plastic maintenance as well as abseiling and climbing.
Currently most repairs are of the ‘cut out and fill’ type or, in the case of laminate repairs, wet lay-up so there is a massive gap to bridge in the knowledge of current workers.
As the turbines get older, inspection and cleaning tasks will be joined by planned repairs, whether these are to the blade, tip or tower. But can a team of off-site engineers really perform all the necessary repairs?
Equipment and tooling
Having the right equipment to both machine the new turbines and repair them are yet another challenge. With many blades now well outside their warranty periods, rotor blade maintenance is a major issue for end users too.
Mirage Machines itself has created a tooling portfolio dedicated to the wind power industry. Understanding the need to make and repair high-demand structures, Mirage provided a solution for tower flanges and blade root ends for one of Europe's largest wind turbine manufacturers.
But more thought in the industry has to go towards on-site machining and what can be done to repair all planned and unplanned issues.
Wind turbine blade repair solution?
Wind turbine blades cannot be 'fit and forget' items. They need repairing and maintenance to secure longevity and better efficiency.
To do this, the net must be cast further to find the next generation of skyworkers. Training and development needs to be improved and widened too, expanding on the courses currently being operated by blade manufacturers including Vestas, Enercon and LM Wind Power.
Experience will also help the new skyworkers to gradually improve their skill set. Subject to bird strikers, lightning strikes, leading edge erosion and 200 mph winds, turbines will be in a state of repair and new engineers experiencing this for the first time will get the chance to learn.
Good, reliable machining and tooling are also required to complete jobs effectively. Looking towards experience and bespoke companies, just like Mirage Machines, could help to speed up the process of repairing turbines in the height of their ever-spinning popularity.
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