VR for renewable energy training is more than just hot air
“As yet, the wind is an untamed and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made will be the taming and harnessing of the wind.”
These words, spoken by Abraham Lincoln in an 1858 lecture, captured the growing interest in wind power during the nineteenth century, but it took until 1980 for the development of the world’s first wind farm. And whilst governments around the globe have been aware of the benefits for more than 50 years, wind energy has come up against a number of challenges.
Firstly, for wind farms to deliver enough capacity to power more than a few homes or businesses they require large turbines, stamped on the landscape, which often face opposition from local communities whose support is a key factor in developing new facilities. But attitudes are starting to change, especially with the increasing viability of offshore wind farms and the imminent need to tackle the global climate crisis. This shift in public perception is a testament to the progress in green energy innovations.
The last decade has also seen a greater focus on wind energy from our nations’ governments. The United States, for example, introduced the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, which is expected to deliver $783bn in public spending on renewable energy.
However, aside from political positioning and public opinion, wind power faces other challenges, such as unpredictable weather, integration into electricity grids, and issues around supply chains, training, maintenance costs, and education. Thankfully, though, new technologies - particularly VR training - are beginning to address many of these issues.
“A key aspect of VR training is that it allows learning activities to be performed in a realistic environment without the need to interfere with asset operation, such as stopping a wind turbine on a windy day to give personnel access for a training exercise,” explains Nicola Rossi, Head of Innovation for Enel Grids and Innovability (part of Enel Group). “This is a key challenge solved by VR in any industrial field, like energy production and distribution, which must remain operational 24/7.”
Enel Group operates in 30 countries around the world, and Enel Grids - the area of the company tasked with power distribution - has been using VR within the renewables sector since 2018, with dedicated rooms for VR training created in each of the company’s 11 training facilities in Italy.
Enel’s VR system, known as ‘VeRA’, allows multiple users to take part in 25 training scenarios, whilst also delivering haptic feedback, making the experience even more effective. And it has met with largely positive reviews.
“Our evacuation exercise of the wind turbine nacelle [the housing that contains all the generating components in a wind turbine] received extensive positive feedback from users who felt it to be very immersive and engaging,” says Rossi. “In Italy, all new Enel Grids workforce employees have one or more VR training experiences during the annual introductory safety training.” This equips them with vital skills for renewable energy careers.
Despite being well-received by most, there are still drawbacks to VR training in the renewable sector, such as the lack of standards and the need to provide an accurate VR representation of real working conditions.
“It is very hard to reproduce physical forces, temperature gradients, or tactile perception,” Rossi admits. “The perception of the user is an essential element to consider in order to make training exercises effective, so when developing VR training content it is important that the experience results in a lasting memory and lesson retention for users.”
Eagle Wu is the founder of Vinci VR, which provides VR training for most of the major wind power operators in the US. He’s looking to address some of the obstacles to VR learning, which is challenging when there’s so little practical experience to draw on.
“In the Northeast of the United States, there is no clean energy workforce. It doesn't exist,” Wu explains. “The focus there, and across most of the country, is on natural gas. People don’t know about clean energy. They don’t know what jobs are available to them. So the vast majority of our work is centered around education.”
Working alongside Siemens Gamesa, a leading turbine manufacturer, Vinci VR has developed the first VR offshore wind turbine training to pass Global Wind Organization (GWO) audits. Vinci VR is now using this certification to help clients like Avangrid Renewables deliver ‘Vineyard Wind 1’, the United States’ first commercial-scale offshore wind project, currently under construction approximately 13 nautical miles south of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
“Most of our workforce is experienced in heavy civil construction but is brand new to offshore wind,” says Dan Kent, Labor Relations Manager at Vineyard Wind. “The community we’re located in is generally excited but really doesn’t understand the scale of this venture. By strapping on a Quest headset, stakeholders receive experiential education without having to step on-site. This flexibility has been paramount in ensuring our project’s success.”
Vinci VR’s certification was used by Vineyard Wind to deliver on-the-job scenarios to union workers, simulating high elevation and enclosed spaces. But the certification is also being used for educational modules within state college renewable energy programs to help find the next generation of wind energy workers.
“Amongst students that participate in our module on offshore wind tech we've seen a 64% increase in understanding of what the wind energy industry is,” says Wu. “Students are able to significantly increase their understanding. Previous training was delivered via PowerPoint. But it isn’t until they put on a VR headset that they actually get it. And having completed our training we saw a 20% increase in interest to continue exploring wind tech as a career [compared to students who didn’t have a VR experience].”
Easier access to standalone VR systems has been a huge advantage for Vinci VR. The company has placed a significant focus on helping schools that don’t have access to an Ivy League budget take full advantage of VR learning experiences.
“I remember when we first started doing this a couple of years ago. If I got a group of 20 students, maybe one of them might have used VR before,” says Wu. “Fast forward to today, and of that same group around half of them have now used VR. And it’s thanks to the Quest. We kept hearing students saying things Iike, ‘I have Beat Saber at home on the Quest.’ And that's when we knew this was the right platform. Because we didn’t need to go through training and onboarding. If most users have already used the system, it makes life so much easier for us.”
The experience of Vinci VR has also been mirrored in Europe, where UK-based VR simulation company VRAI has found that access to headsets is ushering in a new generation of VR natives.
“Today I find that around 50% of the people I speak to have tried VR,” explains VRAI’s Managing Director, Niall Campion. “But five years ago, 99% had never tried it. A few months after the first Quest came out we got a whole load of phone calls and emails saying broadly the same thing: ‘I just tried this VR headset and this is how it could be used for my job.’ Those 20 million headsets have got people familiar with the technology, because until you put it on it's really hard to explain what VR does.”
VRAI was founded in 2017 by Pat O’Connor and Niall Campion with offices in both the north of England and Dublin, Ireland. Initially, the company was focused on the aerospace and defense sectors, where it helped to massively reduce the cost of simulation training. It then turned its attention to green energy innovations, leveraging VR for comprehensive training solutions in the renewable sector.
“Before VR, things like full flight simulators could cost millions of pounds. But VR makes everything more affordable,” says Campion. “Headsets like the Meta Quest mean that for £500 you can have a simulator on the shelf behind you. For example, I might be an offshore wind technician. I'm going to deploy tomorrow. And I can do a quick refresher of what it's like to be on the turbine before I’ve even left the house.”
Following its shift into the offshore wind sector, VRAI started looking at the training that was available to new and existing employees, and found that it wasn’t giving trainees the correct preparation.
“When we started looking at wind, one of our people completed one of the modules for the basic wind turbine training; specifically, fire safety,” reveals Campion. “They were training on what to do in the event of a fire in a wind turbine. The training involved around six hours of PowerPoint presentations. Then they went into the car park, where they watched the instructor use a fire extinguisher. And that qualified them to put out a fire in a wind turbine. We knew there had to be a better way of doing it than that.”
By putting on a headset, trainees can virtually visit, climb, and operate a turbine. They can be exposed to a number of different scenarios, multiple times. Which starts to reinforce the correct behavior in any given simulation.
“Training is always about embedding patterns of behavior in people so that when the pressure’s on, they don't think, they just do,” says Campion. “If there’s a fire in a turbine, no one is going to reflect back to slide 17 in a PowerPoint presentation. That's just not the way your brain works.”
Based on its experience in the defense and aerospace sectors VRAI created a new simulator for firefighting in offshore wind turbines. Having established a focus on data analytics, VRAI measured biometric information to understand cognitive load, so it could establish when trainees became ‘task saturated.’
“The fundamentals of simulation training, or training in general, is to prepare yourself for when you go and do the job for real, when the pressure is really on,” says Campion. “That’s where you really start seeing the value of data. You can understand when someone is not going to be able to complete their job successfully, and then identify where they need more training to improve their cognitive load.”
However, despite huge advances in recent years, there are still improvements that can be made to VR training. The challenges of using new technology will continue to shape how that training is delivered.
“We ask ourselves how we could have done things better at the end of every project,” Campion reveals. “In a training environment, 50% of people who are coming to VR will have never tried it before. So there’s always the balance between showing someone how the technology works alongside the need to learn. They’re not there to learn how to use VR, and we need to make sure the technology doesn’t get in the way of them learning. That’s one of the biggest challenges with all VR-based training.”
For any business looking to invest in VR training, whether it’s in renewable energy or elsewhere, Enel’s Nicola Rossi advises that a sound business case is going to be the main priority.
“We recommend ensuring that the VR training scenarios that are developed have a sustainable business case and a solid user base,” she says. “If the costs are not justified by the user base, the initial investment is at risk, so it is better to move gradually and improve as the user base grows. It is also important to ensure a high level of realism with state-of-the-art technology, which requires continuous scouting and research.”
The integration of virtual reality into training programs is not just an innovation; it's a revolution in how we prepare the next generation for the challenges of sustainable energy. As we navigate the evolving landscape of green energy innovations, it becomes clear that VR Training is more than just a tool—it's a gateway to a future where renewable energy is the norm, not the exception. It's not only energy either, VR is impacting across multiple industries including pharmaceuticals, construction and even aviation. We’ve only just begun.