Release date: 16 May 2016
Since the age of classic ocean-going sailing ships, few have studied the wind as intently as a small BP team based in a Houston office. These modern-day wind enthusiasts work at BP’s remote operations center (ROC) where everything from violent gusts to the doldrums is tracked at 16 wind farms across the United States.
The day never really ends or begins at the ROC, because the facility is staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
During normal working hours, the BP wind farms are operated by their respective teams in the field. The ROC provides monitoring and support to those staffers who are spread across nine states, from California to Pennsylvania. At night, on weekends and holidays, operators at the ROC watch and manage the wind farms.
People trickle in to the ROC, some 30 storeys above city streets, early — most start checking email and weather reports before dawn.
Operator Eric Carlisle, who typically works a 12-hour shift, sits with nearly a dozen computer screens surrounding him. On the wall directly ahead is a large display showing live information about all of BP’s wind farms.
Another screen provides a view of the weather across the continental United States. The room is quiet except for the occasional tapping of a keyboard by staffers.
Data shows that BP Wind is currently producing at 53.6% capacity and putting out enough electricity to power 419,244 homes.
A signal on the display board shows an open breaker at Flat Ridge 2 in Kansas. A technician, who is stationed in the area, is notified of the situation and heads for the site.
“The operator sees the signal pop up on the board, and we get an audible alarm,” says Ryan Blaine, lead operator. “Sometimes we have to contact the site to send someone out there to drive along the power lines to see if they are down and what caused the breaker to open. It could be a snake, a rodent or a bird that got into the substation and caused the breaker to trip. Everything has to be inspected to determine the cause.”
Blaine and Carlisle talk about the latest weather forecast for the Fowler Ridge wind farm in Indiana. High winds are expected, and if they reach a certain speed, the turbines may have to be shut down to prevent damage. “Winds are predicted to gust between 60 to 70 miles per hour,” Blaine explains.
While steady, strong winds are usually good for spinning the blades and making power, too much wind can be a bad thing, as the turbines — like any machine — have design limits that should not be exceeded.
“As a protective measure, they turn themselves off if there is too much wind because the blades can flex or bend in such conditions and actually cut into the tower itself,” he says.
Electrical production has picked up slightly: BP wind farms are producing at 56.4% capacity, powering 442,837 homes.
An alert sounds, letting the crew know that one of the turbines at Titan 1 wind farm in South Dakota is down for a planned outage for maintenance.
The operators learn that Trinity Hills farm in north Texas and the ROC have temporarily lost connections.
“We can see real-time data coming through; we know what it is producing, but we do not have remote control of the turbines,” says Robert Watson, an analyst and operator at the ROC. “We contacted the site and let them know about it, and we are troubleshooting on our end.”
Contact between ROC and Trinity Hills is re-established and normal operations resume.
Blaine, along with Watson and fellow operator Joe Almendarez, start working on a plan to adjust turbine blades at Fowler Ridge and also at the Mehoopany farm in Pennsylvania to prevent potential harm to bats. At certain times of the year, the parameters of the blade pitch are manipulated to match sunrise and sunset each day, when the bats are active.
“The pitch angles of the blades will be changed so that they move very slowly,” Blaine says. This adjustment is a BP Wind best practice, designed to help minimize impacts of wind farms on wildlife.
The wind farms are producing (at 57.4%) enough power for 452,970 homes.
A message arrives, indicating that technicians are on site at Flat Ridge to investigate the alarm from earlier in the day.
It is lunch time at the ROC, and every few minutes someone slips out to grab something to eat. The building the employees call home is connected to downtown Houston’s extensive tunnel system, where dozens of restaurants and small food shops are located. The tunnels allow locals to move about below ground, avoiding rainstorms and the sweltering summer weather.
Technicians call in from Flat Ridge, where they have diagnosed a problem with a bushing (a removable cylindrical lining for a mechanical part) at a turbine site. “A crew needs to be dispatched to work on this at Flat Ridge; this outage affects 17 turbines,” Almendarez says.
The delivery of energy from sources such as wind (or solar) is variable and is often poorly matched to demand.
Renewable energy sources are also of lower energy density than fossil fuels and are often located in areas remote from demand.
Wind power is considered an intermittant energy source, because the wind does not always blow where and when it is needed. Therefore, in today’s current energy mix, to be a more consistent form of energy supply, it must be supplemented by conventional sources, such as clean-burning natural gas, to counteract the challenges posed by its intermittency.
A notification comes in, letting the operators know that it has started to snow at the Cedar Creek site in northern Colorado. Snow and ice build-up on turbine blades can present issues as the spinning blades can hurl chunks of ice hundreds of yards across the countryside.
The snow notification is another reminder of how the ROC operators often deal with varied weather conditions in a single day. Weather ‘fuels’ the turbines and therefore is constantly on everyone’s mind.
“For instance, lightning strikes can cause interruptions in communications between the farms and the ROC, “Blaine says. “If we lose contact temporarily, it usually takes a minute or two to recover.”
However, if the communication outage persists, operators must notify the farm that they are not being monitored from Houston. “They will have to monitor it until we can figure out what is damaged and call someone for support.”
To stay ahead of the weather, each day BP meteorologists provide a detailed forecast for each wind farm. The team is particularly concerned about gusts, which can appear suddenly and cause problems for the turbines.
65.3% capacity, 513,957 homes.
A call comes in from a technician asking for information about voltage history at the Fowler Ridge farm.
“He wants to perform some annual testing, so he coordinates with us to make sure we have the right amount of generation to perform that test,” Blaine says. “And we need to decide if this is a good time to do that test. We are the focus of communication, and we have to give the green light.”
Cedar Creek wind farm calls the ROC to tell the operators that they are taking the entire farm offline and will remain out the following day to perform maintenance work.
A special weather alert pops up on the screens of the ROC teams. After spending the entire day worrying about weather across the United States, this forecasts calls for heavy rain in the Houston area in the morning.
If bad weather prevents the ROC team from getting to the office, they have the ability to do their job elsewhere.
“But, if it’s a long-term issue — for example, if we have to leave Houston for a hurricane — we will relocate to a secondary site at Trinity Hills in North Texas,” Blaine says. “If the relocation lasts longer than three days, the team will move to Kansas, and if we have to move again, we just keep moving inland. We have a robust infrastructure to support our operations.”
Watson, Almendarez and Blaine leave for the day and will return at 6am. BP Wind is operating at 60%, enough electricity for 486,150 homes.
BP has interests in 16 operational wind farms in nine US states: Texas, Indiana, California, Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, Hawaii and Pennsylvania.