Update on Monitoring PEI Wind Farms (not there yet)

Three months ago I reported on a personal effort I’d undertaken to work to get real time wind energy generation from provincially-owned wind farms here on Prince Edward Island available to the public as open data. My reasoning was two-fold: I want the public to be more aware, even if only peripherally, of how much wind energy we’re generating here, and I want to be able to build – and stimulate others to build – applications on top of this and other open energy data.

My meeting in March with Hon. Richard Brown, Minister of Environment, Energy & Forestry was positive, and Richard is behind this effort entirely; I had high hopes we were on the right track.

The first work to come out of this effort was a stop-gap project based on abstract data; at best it allows us to infer wind energy generation, but not to get at the real numbers.

To get at the actual data requires tapping into what I’ve learned is called the SCADA system for the wind farms – this stands for “supervisory control and data acquisition” and it’s a favoured buzzword of the industrial monitoring crowd. In the case of provincially-owned wind farms this means tapping into the SCADA system provided by Vestas, the wind turbine manufacturer and the company that has the contract to maintain the wind energy infrastructure on PEI.

Unfortunately there are a few technical challenges in achieving this “tapping in,” primary among them is that VestasOnline, the company’s SCADA system, isn’t designed with “open data” in mind; indeed it seems specifically designed to prevent wide-scale distribution of data: it’s a PC-based proprietary system that requires an expensive “dongle” in the computer it’s running on and while it seems to be perfectly fine for someone to monitor wind farms from their desktop – this is how department staff monitor wind farms from their desks in Charlottetown – there’s no obvious way to get real time data out of the system and onto the web.

There’s another problem that’s limited to the North Cape wind farm, and that is that the SCADA system there is only reachable by a single dial-up connection, so the best one might achieve is occasional “polling” of the data rather than real time access.

My working theory on how we might open up the data – and when I say “we” I mean me and the province working together in a completely voluntary effort – is to write some custom code that would pull data from the database that the VestasOnline software archives its data into. Because I don’t have technical documentation on VestasOnline I’m only assuming that it uses some non-encrypted open database format; I may be naive in this assumption.

To be able to find this out – to test my naive assumptions, in other words – requires access to an actual VestasOnline system: fortunately there’s a secondary system that the province owns that could act as this testbed; unfortunately after three months this system is still awaiting installation and configuration, so I haven’t been able to make any progress on this front.

I had another meeting with Minister Brown this week to get updated on the project, a meeting prompted, in part, by the CBC Spark episode on my early efforts; Richard’s office is going to work with the computer services folks to gear up the VestasOnline server, and they’ll either take over the “can we get the data out” effort themselves, or get me access to it to find out.

So we’re not there yet, but we’re heading in the right direction.