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Business Process Management In the Evolving Wind Industry

The wind power space in the United States is an exciting area of the energy sector. Over a span of only two decades, wind has become a serious contributor to the national energy market — growth fueled in part by rapid technological advancement. These advances pose a challenge to operators, who must constantly learn new turbine models, adapt maintenance processes, and develop innovative solutions to new issues.

Like most wind energy companies, EDP Renewables North America’s (EDPR) challenge is to connect it’s broadly dispersed wind farms to its central support offices.

Other challenges require renewable energy companies to strike a delicate equilibrium between competing interests. Although wind energy has grown tremendously over the previous two decades, the industry faces a constant struggle to balance the need to maximize the production of an asset to take advantage of the wind’s potential power, optimize the timing of required maintenance to ensure that farms can operate while the wind is blowing, and remain in compliance with increasingly complex regulatory requirements. While modern technology enables companies to accurately forecast wind speeds and generation potential, the industry as a whole must still work around the availability of the wind to schedule maintenance and perform repairs, a problem not typically shared by traditional sources of energy generation.

Faced with these challenges, EDPR has begun using Business Process Management (BPM) technology as an engagement vehicle to maximize our assets’ performance, improve communication between sites, and help develop a knowledge base of solutions to critical turbine issues.

We determined that our organization faced the following key challenges:

  1. Prioritization — we needed to determine which problems are the most critical to address and solve first
  2. Communication — a centrally located technical services team is responsible for assisting broadly-dispersed sites. We needed to make it clear which engineer was designated as a solution leader for each issue, and provide clarity to the field staff on who to contact with questions or updates.
  3. Knowledge Retention and Learning — given the pace of advancement in turbine technology, we needed to document maintenance techniques, technical solutions, and best practices in a useful way

With these challenges in mind, we developed and implemented a case management application called COBRA (short for Collaboration). 

Prioritization

An issue raised in COBRA is an out-of-the-ordinary performance issue that cannot be immediately solved. By definition, these are the problems with no obvious solution. To determine each issue’s priority for engineering attention, COBRA uses real-time data about the issue’s size and frequency combined with pricing information and efficiency for the affected wind farm(s) to determine that particular issue’s ability to affect the company’s bottom line. Issues are assigned a score from 1-1000, which provides an absolute basis for objective comparison. EDPR is using this data to make transparent decisions about where to assign resources and focus repair efforts. 

Geographic Dispersion and Department Specialization

Wind turbines are highly complex machines, and issues that affect the fleet can have broad-ranging consequences. COBRA provides a platform for structured collaboration for each issue, allowing departments to weigh in on the ramifications (technical, engineering, wind resource assessment, environmental, safety, procurement, legal, regulatory, and others) of problems, as well as assist in their potential solutions. COBRA also assigns internal resources to each case that serve as a dedicated contact for managers at the site level to communicate. Each issue has a dashboard which lists details about the event, documents, assigned resources, and any notes that have been added in support of a solution, which also makes communication between locations easy by serving as a platform to discuss updates and new developments.

Knowledge Retention and Learning

Not only does COBRA assign dedicated resources to serve as a point of contact for each case, but the discussions, notes, and documentation from engaged departments that are posted for each case are logged, creating a constantly-expanding knowledge base of solutions for future problems. Recently, this knowledge base has been integrated in the raising of new issues: before a manager can submit an issue for evaluation, COBRA presents a keyword-matched list of similar, solved issues which may be able to help the manager solve his or her problem without intervention. This ensures that EDPR staff can rapidly respond to similar problems encountered in the future, and prevents the company from having to constantly reinvent the wheel for solution creation.

Since the system’s inception in the middle of 2011, we have been able to capture over $100 million of issue solutions annually while solutions are accessed in average over 3,000 times per year.

Using BPM technology is not always a guarantee for success. Before using a system to automate activities, organizations should thoroughly define their major processes that govern those activities. Furthermore it is critical to listen to user feedback in order to design new, needed features and to improve the user experience. BPM technology has been a game-changer for EDPR, and could be helpful for other organizations seeking to improve the efficiency of their core processes.

Lead image: Wind turbines via Shutterstock

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