Big Data Squeezing More Power From Wind Signals Next Investments

  • Enel in Italy finding ways to save by tapping operating data
  • Utility spending small sums to save `millions,' CEO says

Enel SpA is investing small sums of money on the order of 40 million euros ($45 million) to tap savings in the “millions” by examining the data that comes from hundreds of power plants it’s operating worldwide, its chief executive officer said.

Francesco Starace said Italy’s largest utility already is squeezing more out of the wind farms it operates around the world after operational data identified certain wind turbines had software that held back performance. He expects a deeper analysis of data to produce more savings and open new opportunities for the power company.

“Big data for machines is a low hanging fruit,” Starace said in an interview on Monday before speaking at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit in London. “Machines can tell you when they’re ready to be maintained, ready to break, ready to freeze.”

The investment involved is “small” for now but generated savings in the “millions” of euros on the wind turbines alone. While some power generators believe their industry is immune to digital and Internet trends, Starace says embracing new technologies will be one of the keys to Enel’s strategy in the coming years.

He’s also investing about 30 million euros in energy storage and expects some technologies could revolutionize the power industry. As the renewables industry matures and more wind and solar farms come online, the need to monitor them and their intermittent output intensifies. Storage may smooth out how power is delivered.

Once the territory of start-ups and Silicon Valley, understanding and using that technology is now shifting to the industry’s largest players.

In the long term, big data explaining and predicting consumer behavior will be important. Information about their machines’ performance is immediately applicable in the short term, Starace said.

Enel is also developing three pilot plants in Italy and one in Mexico to test different energy storage technologies. The company invests in projects rather than developing the technology themselves, testing products once they are made.

“We think there is a huge potential for a breakthrough in storage technology in the next five years,” said Starace. “We are investing in batteries of all kinds, hardware and software management, plants with and without batteries, putting storage in people’s homes and electric vehicles.”

The investment in these areas is marginal when compared to Enel’s total annual investment of 7.5 billion euros. “The returns can be huge, an incredible leverage,” said Starace.

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