How virtual reality is helping the green energy boom FEATURE
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It can be costly and hazardous to learn how to fix a wind turbine. Virtual reality offers a cheaper and safer way.

The modern offshore wind turbine is a fearsome beast. On energy plants such as Burbo Bank, off the U.K. coast, the machines rise 640 feet from the waves. Learning how to keep them in working order is no mean feat.

It is costly to send students out to learn on a turbine in the middle of the North Sea. And if something goes wrong, getting a trainee back to shore could be a problem. So green power firms are turning to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for help. 

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In June 2017, for instance, Fife College, in Scotland, launched an ‘Immersive Hybrid Reality' lab that uses VR to show people how to maintain an offshore wind turbine without stepping outside.

The lab mimics what it is like to be 360 feet up in the nacelle of a 7-megawatt machine, complete with the sound of the wind and sea. The lab mimics what it is like to be 360 feet up in the nacelle of a 7-megawatt machine, complete with the sound of the wind and sea. Students can move around just as they would inside the turbine, check for common problems, and pick up real tools and manuals.

But all of this happens without the cost, time, and danger of having to travel out to a real turbine.

Learning in this way "provides very direct cost benefits in advanced on-the-job training, reducing the need to provide safe access," says Bill Hutchison, Fife College curriculum manager for electrical, electronic, and petroleum engineering.

VR and AR are being used today in many other sectors, he notes. "As VR and AR systems become more user-friendly and lower cost, they are set to become the norm in training regimes," Hutchison believes.

Being able to see what it is like inside a turbine is not only vital for the people learning to maintain the machines, it also helps potential wind turbine buyers.

As a result, the green power sector has started using VR for sales as well as training. MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, which makes the world's biggest wind turbine, has a VR booth at its stand in trade fairs.

"We set up stations where you put on the harness gear that our turbine technicians wear, a protective vest, then the VR headset," says Michael Morris, external communication consultant at MHI Vestas.

"One of our service technicians gives you a guided tour on top of the nacelle and then inside the nacelle, where the gearbox and power converter turn wind power into electricity," he says.

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Being able to gain a sense of being in a power plant without having to visit one is a key asset for the green power sector simply because so many are in remote areas,  says Mark Miles of Rendermedia, a U.K. VR firm.

"You could allow customers and stakeholders to experience the benefits of solar or wind technology or, for training, allow students to fix components collaboratively in real time in the same virtual space, without being in the same space physically," he says.

For a sector that has a firm focus on keeping its workers from harm, keeping risks down through VR is something well worth putting energy into.

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About Jason Deign @DeigninSpain

Jason Deign is a Barcelona-based business writer, journalist and author.