ANN ARBOR — A Southeast Michigan company that started by inspecting wind turbine components by drone has evolved to provide more complex asset management that’s meant to maximize the output of a growing renewable energy sector.
Ann Arbor-based SkySpecs LLC, which organized less than a decade ago, has jumped into a rapidly growing renewable energy space that’s being driven by declining costs, corporate demand and governmental policies.
As U.S. wind energy capacity grows, the industry still faces a shortage of skilled labor that can service the tens of thousands of turbines in operation. Automating that maintenance process can help turbines run more regularly and avoid unplanned downtime.
SkySpecs CEO Danny Ellis noted that wind turbines are sold based on a 35-year life span, “but not a single turbine has ever gotten to that,” creating a need for ongoing and predictive maintenance.
“Renewable energy is finally reaching a maturity point where it can stand on its own,” Ellis said, referring to cost comparisons with other fuel sources. “It can be a revenue-generating asset. It’s critical that the owners, operators, financiers and stakeholders have a thorough understanding of their health and maintenance records.”
That’s where SkySpecs comes in.
The company is “building a future of renewable energy asset management, building robotics and sensory systems” to collect data on wind turbines, he said. Autonomous drones help identify external turbine defects or damages while custom-built rovers operate inside the turbine blades and drivetrains.
The inspections from drones and rovers provide numerous data points to “build this whole ecosystem that’s looking at all different aspects of the turbine,” Ellis said. “Effectively, it’s a health record, and we’re using that data to build a plan to identify when to fix something.”
The purpose is to avoid operational downtime, which Ellis said has plagued the industry and prevents turbines from reaching higher production potential.
“Unplanned downtime leads to over-budgeted repair costs, which leads to a loss of revenue,” said Ellis, adding that the U.S. industry faces a shortage of skilled labor to service turbines. “That unplanned downtime is what the industry is really trying to control.”
The need to maximize wind turbines’ output comes as states, the federal government and utilities plan massive renewable energy investments in the coming years to address climate change. Particularly in Midwestern states, wind energy will play a crucial role in that process and can benefit states with fewer wind resources if more high-voltage transmission is built.
“If we can further automate asset management so the industry can scale accordingly, that will be helpful for the world,” Ellis said.