New energy, new technology

Last edited: 20 November 2014

From equipment that boosts the aerodynamic efficiency of wind turbine blades to the use of global positioning systems to improve sugarcane cultivation, technology is transforming the way in which BP’s Alternative Energy business operates

According to BP’s Energy Outlook 2035, global demand for energy is set to rise by 41%, with renewable energy sources expected to continue to be the fastest-growing class of energy. If you include biofuels, renewables are expected to have a higher share of primary energy than nuclear by 2025. Technology is playing an enormous role in this rapid development and in BP, where the focus is on wind and biofuels, it’s having a revolutionary effect on the way in which its turbines operate and its feedstocks are harvested and efficiently converted into biofuels.

In the US, BP’s wind business has interests in 16 wind farms, generating almost 2,600 megawatts of renewable power – enough to power 780,000 average US homes, or a city the size of Houston, Texas.

BP is also a leading player in the production of bioethanol, with three mills in Brazil and the Vivergo facility in Hull, UK (a joint venture with AB Sugar and DuPont). Between them, the mills produce around 11,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. In addition, BP is using its assets to develop and commercialise innovative proprietary biofuels technologies.

“In AE, technology is at the core of what we do,” says Tom Campbell, technology vice president for biofuels. “For example, our biofuels business is deploying advanced control technologies that are helping to automate the planting process at our three sugarcane mills in Brazil, which, in turn, allows us to reduce risks and increase yields. Through our proprietary cellulosic ethanol technology, CellulexTM, we are also using BP’s bioscience skills to develop feedstock and conversion technologies that unlock the production of lignocellulosic [second-generation] ethanol.

“In wind, we are installing new technology on some of our turbines to increase the production of renewable electricity, and we are using technology to monitor our operating turbines from a dedicated operations centre to enable us to enhance performance.”

Wind generator

Technology is also helping BP’s wind business to address key challenges of productivity, cost and sustainability. The ‘vortex generator’ (VG), for example, is a relatively simple piece of technology that fits into the palm of the hand and yet when several hundred are installed on wind turbine blades, they can improve aerodynamic efficiency and increase the amount of energy that a blade can extract at a given wind speed. In fact, VGs have the potential to increase the power generated by BP’s owned and operated US wind assets by up to 3% annually, equivalent to the energy consumption of 250,000 15-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs being turned on continuously for a year.

A VG’s optimal position on a blade is determined by mathematical calculations and onsite visualisations of the wind flow. Each one is installed using a high-performance industrial adhesive that can cope with extreme conditions, including rain, ice, snow, and, of course, high winds.

They work by keeping the air flow attached to the blade longer, which generates more rotational force or lift. This causes the blades to spin faster and generate more energy than a non-VG-equipped turbine in the same wind conditions. Air flow separation occurs when the air flowing along the surface of the blade detaches, reducing the force available to move the blade. Similar to how an aeroplane stays in the air by using lift, wind turbine blades are designed by balancing structural stability with aerodynamic efficiency and the VGs help to improve this efficiency.
"In AE, technology is at the core of what we do, for example, our biofuels business is deploying advanced control technologies that are helping to automate the planting process at our three sugarcane mills in Brazil, which, in turn, allows us to reduce risks and increase yields."
- Tom Campbell

Venturing investment

In 2013, as part of its focus to enhance performance across its wind business and through an investment set up by BP’s venturing team, BP joined forces with UpWind Solutions, a San Diego headquartered turbine service provider that is now installing VGs on turbines at six of BP’s wholly-owned US wind farms: Titan 1, in South Dakota; Edom Hills in California; Flat Ridge 1 in Kansas; and Trinity Hills, Silver Star 1 and Sherbino 2 in Texas.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity for us to become a technology partner with BP at six of its sites,” says Peter Wells, UpWind chief executive officer. “It has enabled us to further expand our footprint in the US, and to work with a company so focused and appreciative of the value that technology delivers to a business.”

James Madson, director of performance services for BP Wind Energy, says: “Wind speeds vary substantially, even across one wind farm. This relatively simple technology helps us to generate additional energy across the operational range of wind speeds and helps to keep each turbine operating as close to its full power as it can, as often as it can. In a trial of VG technology on five turbines at the Trinity Hills wind farm in Texas, earlier in 2014, we achieved a greater than 2% improvement in energy production.

“Working on our behalf, UpWind is installing 69 VGs on each of the three blades of these turbine rotors. We plan to install VGs on 212 of our Clipper turbines by the end of 2014. We are also pursuing discussions with partners and other VG vendors about the potential to install this technology on the assets we co-own.”

Agricultural intelligence

Meanwhile, BP’s biofuels business is using several technologies, such as global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS), auto-pilot and onboard computers in its Brazil operations to improve the way in which sugarcane is cultivated across its 130,000 hectares – an area almost the size of London. Together with advances in the industrial conversion process – such as the use of near-infrared (NIR) for process monitoring and other applications of process intensification – these developments in ‘agricultural intelligence’ are contributing to growth of up to 45% in BP’s sugarcane value chain. Not bad for a crop with a 500-year history in Brazil.

“Using GPS technology to map the farms and to plan and monitor our sugarcane planting and harvesting, we are maximising our use of the land and increasing our production with the same area,” says Wesley Ambrosio, technology director for BP Biofuels in Brazil. “Our machines are spread out across several thousand hectares, and we are using GPS and onboard computers in the fields as a tracking tool to monitor the progress of automated planting and harvesting vehicles and to enable greater efficiency at scale.

“We are also using GIS technology to integrate our soil maps and varietal portfolio, so that we can optimise and improve the way we plant, irrigate and fertilise the crops, so we get the best out of the land and resources. Biofuels in Brazil was perceived as an agricultural business, but these approaches are changing the mindset and it is becoming much more of an energy business. We are increasing yields and efficiency as a result.”

Ambrosio adds: “On the industrial side, the application of process-intensification technologies, such as fermenting sugar juice to generate ethanol in a continuous process, instead of fermenting it in batches, as is the industry standard, allowed us to increase productivity almost threefold. The use of the process-intensification approach has also allowed BP in Brazil to double its anhydrous ethanol production capacity using the same distillation columns. This approach of efficiency through technology is well used in other BP businesses and is improving the profitability of BP’s existing sugarcane mills in Brazil.”

As BP’s AE businesses mature, technologies like these will be essential in maximising the energy that can be produced from wind and sugarcane.

In numbers

  • BP’s wind business generates enough energy to power 780,000 average US homes – a city the size of Houston, Texas
  • Vortex generators have the potential to increase BP’s wind power generated by up to 3% annually, equivalent to the energy consumption of 250,000 15-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs being turned on continuously for a year.
  • Sugarcane is cultivated across 130,000 hectares by BP in Brazil – an area almost the size of London.

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