For thousands of years, people have tried to harness the wind and sun. These days, modern technology makes it easier, and wind and solar power plants are cropping up all over the world.
In North America, 30 operators and support staff in a Charlotte, N.C., office building help capture Mother Nature’s power and send it to the electric grid for Duke Energy Renewables, a division of Duke Energy, in the Renewable Control Center. They monitor wind and solar power plants all day and all night, from coast to coast, and direct 5,000 megawatts of energy to light cities and towns from North Carolina to California.
Duke Energy Renewables’ wind and solar sites generate 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy. The company also monitors and controls another 2,000 MW for other companies – including the nation’s first offshore wind farm 3 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s enough clean energy to power 1 million homes.
The control center is staffed 24 hours a day every day of the year to ensure renewable energy is sent to the grid in compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corporation standards. Each employee's desk has six monitors that display more than 20 software systems running thousands of data sets and algorithms to help employees operate wind turbines and solar panels efficiently and safely.
The center started in 2009 with three sites totaling 300 megawatts with a manager and one operator per shift. Nearly 10 years later, the team’s 30 employees monitor more than 90 wind, solar and battery sites. For smaller companies, contracting services with Duke Energy Renewables allows them to afford more renewable energy without investing in a high-tech facility of their own.
Here are some of the ways the Renewable Control Center uses technology to increase renewable energy production and keep employees safe.
Start. Stop. Yaw and stow.
Using custom SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems installed at wind and solar sites, the center can start, stop and reset equipment. It can make adjustments to yaw (or turn) wind turbines to match the wind direction or stow solar panels to reduce damage during high winds and severe weather. In addition to monitoring individual plant components, operators look at the plant’s performance and output as a whole to make sure it is producng as much renewable energy as possible.
The technology alerts operators to equipment malfunctions, which in some cases can be repaired remotely in minutes. When repairs require in-person assistance, employees in Charlotte will dispatch the nearest technician. Having someone monitor around-the-clock and quickly address issues means the sites will be available to produce more energy.
Watch the weather
In addition to the six monitors at their desks, employees use eight television-size screens mounted on the wall to watch more systems – including weather.
One screen monitors weather within a 60-mile radius of each wind site and 30-mile radius of each solar site. Employees in the field receive an automatic severe weather alert, if, for example lightning is approaching, but employees in the center also keep track of all technicians in the field and will call to confirm that they are out of the wind turbine or off the solar site and in a safe location before severe weather arrives.
Increase renewable energy on the grid
Center employees use weather data from Duke Energy meteorologists including wind speed, temperature and irradiance to predict how much renewable energy can be produced each hour and potentially in the days ahead. The more accurate their predictions are, the more valuable the forecast is for energy buyers.