Building it Better: How Wind EPCs Are Driving Down Wind Energy Cost

While the all-in cost to build a wind farm has fallen dramatically over the years, due in part to larger and more powerful turbines that can harness more wind energy for less money, the cost of building the projects themselves has also fallen but still has a ways to go.

“Driving out waste in our industry is always at the forefront of our minds,” said Tim Maag, the Vice President and general manager of wind for Mortenson Construction, one of the top wind EPCs in the United States. Maag acknowledges that collectively the wind industry has made a lot of progress in bringing down costs but said that type of work is never done.

“Driving out waste is something that you never stop working on.”

First Standardize, Then Improve

Maag said that early on Mortenson developed standard work instructions for all of the work it does building a wind farm but that is only the first step. Once the standard is in place, Mortenson challenges all of its workers to improve it and offers them incentives like gift cards or jackets as rewards for good ideas.

“We know if we engage the craft workers, the people doing the work, the people that are closest to it, and challenge them to come up with a better way of doing it, that the sky is the limit,” he said.

For example, Maag said that sometimes making a tweak to a process might mean that a crew of five can now do the work with only four people and the fifth team member can be assigned to a different task. A tweak could be in the form of the way a certain tool is used in the build process or a more efficient sequence for getting the work done, said Maag.

One innovation that Mortenson is in the process of creating is the ability to use an algorithm to define the best energy output with the least cost of construction. The company is working with Stanford University to perfect the system, which looks at the placement of turbines, the output they will generate and then factors in construction costs. The algorithm might show that moving a turbine a bit further a bit to the left or a bit to the right could reduce the cost of construction significantly but keep the wind resource the same.

“So the algorithm will go in and automatically relocate the turbines looking for the best energy output and the least cost of construction to get them put there,” he said.

Software for Operation Efficiencies

In addition to algorithms like the one that Mortenson is using in partnership with Stanford, Maag said the company uses 3D design software for all of its builds and that it can layer the schedule on top of the design (the forth dimension) to give workers an understanding of where the project needs to be at any point in the future.

“So using virtual design has been pretty cool,” said Maag, adding, “of course that helps us sequence the work and look for the most efficient way of building the project.”

Vestas, one the largest turbine manufacturers in the world (but not an EPC), also recently announced that it uses operational efficiency software from SirionLabs to help drive costs out of its organization on the IT level. Sirion’s enterprise software platform uses automation and advanced analytics to help buyers and suppliers create higher value and more successful relationships, while enabling effective management of cost and risk in complex services engagements, said the company.

Vestas adopted Sirion’s solution to give it better visibility and control over the performance of its IT suppliers. The platform helps to minimize financial losses and risk in contracts. SirionLabs said in a press release that in addition to the significant hard Euro savings achieved through Sirion’s comprehensive 3-way invoice validation, the ability to monitor supplier performance at a granular level helps give Vestas more control of its supplier engagements.

“We realized cost-savings equating to 300 percent return on investment in Sirion during the first year as it enabled us to identify discrepancies in our supplier invoices which would otherwise go unnoticed,” said Henrik Stefansen, Senior Director, Global IT Sourcing at Vestas in the release.

Innovating with Partners and on the Job

Ken Hilgert is Business Development Director for Blattner Energy, another major EPC provider for wind farms. He said in an email that Blattner looks for innovative solutions to reduce cost from its projects and finds those cost-saving opportunities by integrating early with its clients.

Indeed, working with clients and partners is another key to finding innovative ways to cuts costs and/or improve processes. Mortenson’s Maag gave an example of how logistics companies must be able to deliver taller cranes in order to accommodate the taller turbine towers that have larger nacelles.

“We have to work very closely with the crane companies to make sure that there are going to be machines big enough to get to those elevations,” he said.

Equipment company Ampelmann manufactures people and cargo transfer solutions for the offshore wind industry in Europe. Friso Talsma, Business Development Manager with the company explained that its fully motion compensated gangways exist to “make sure people can safely get to work on an oil and gas platform or an offshore wind platform.” Because they are motion-compensated, the gangways remain stable in harsh marine environments and are not affected by wind, waves or currents.

The company recently announced that its E1000 motion compensated access system, with a gangway that transforms into a crane boom, had performed more than 12,000 people transfers and 7,000 cargo transfers safely between an offshore support vessel and wind turbines over a ten-month period. That increase in operational man-hours on the maintenance program for the wind farm resulted in Ampelmann’s contract being extended by Siem Offshore Contractors.

Steven Vis, Operations Engineer at Ampelmann explained that the company was able to find a more productive solution on the job.

“During this project, we came up with a solution to further increase operational efficiencies. The manual pins were replaced by hydraulic pin pushers, which reduced the change-over time from people to cargo mode from ten to five minutes. The E1000 was then able to transfer both people and cargo within 20 minutes,” he said.

Even though a five-minute reduction in the time it takes to perform an activity doesn’t seem like a huge innovation, reducing the time involved in performing a complicated process by 50 percent no doubt adds up over time.

Thinking Big, Really Big

Talsma said that Ampelmann has now formed an internal team devoted to solving problems or creating more efficiencies within the wind industry.

“With that team we are developing innovations based on systems we already have or on new systems specially designed for the wind industry,” he said.

Mortenson has also formed several internal teams that are focused on innovation, said Maag. The “innovation challenge” asks teams of construction professionals to come up with “some of the boldest and the best ideas to tackle a problem within our industry,” he said.

There are seven teams working on the wind industry and each one will come up with three ideas. Those three ideas will then be narrowed down to one idea per team and each one will be presented to upper management at the end of 2017. Mortenson’s upper management will then choose which ideas to pursue for further development, potentially investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance them, Maag explained.

“It’s really amazing to see the creativity of our team members when you unleash them to think freely and to come up with ideas like that,” he said.

“I’m excited for the ideas I’m hearing about already.”

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