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Published on April 21st, 2014 | by Mike Barnard

50

Where Is The Real Innovation In Wind Energy?

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April 21st, 2014 by
 
Wind energy is a tremendous success story world wide, with staggering amounts of innovation. It isn’t given sufficient credit for that and is even unfairly attacked by those opposed to it as old technology. Every aspect of construction, operation, and the business of horizontal axis wind turbines has been subject to extensive innovation over the past 40 years. Whether it is increased height, materials, or maintenance, extensive directed research and incremental innovation has made wind energy directly competitive with fossil fuel generation, even the unnaturally cheap unconventional gas-powered generation in the USA.

InnovationContinuum

Image courtesy http://steinvox.com/blog/invention-is-not-innovation-field-of-dreams-strategy-almost-always-fails/

Innovation is a wildly overused term. Some people think that having a cool idea is innovation. Many people think it’s just invention, and further that unless something is brand new and different than what came before, it isn’t innovative. Invention comes up with something new or a new combination of old things, while innovation brings something new or a new combination of old things to market successfully. Patents are mostly a history of invention, not innovation, and there are innumerable patents which describe things of no market value.

In the past couple of months, I’ve written a handful of articles which deflate some commonly hyped wind ‘innovations’. One was a realistic overview of airborne wind energy in general, one looked closely at Google Makani, one checked the status of offshore vertical axis wind turbines, one dealt with a lesser known airborne wind generation approach called Sky Windpower, and one pointed out why vertical axis wind turbines barely generate any electricity worldwide compared to the iconic alternative. The proponents of those technologies claim that they are disruptive innovations, usually without understanding what that means.

susdir2

Innovation has two flavours: disruptive and incremental. A disruptive innovation is the combination of a product or service, a distribution channel, and a business model that either creates a new market or redefines an existing market. An incremental innovation makes an existing product, service, channel, or business model more efficient or more attractive, increasing profit or market share within an existing market. Christiansen and Raynor’s work The Innovator’s Solution, the follow-on to The Innovator’s Dilemma, is strongly recommended reading for clarity on this subject. The fundamental graphic from that book, included here, is worth spending time to understand. The dilemma for market leaders is that disruptive innovations often draw away the least profitable potential clients first and are not attractive to the most profitable clients. As a result, disruptive innovations are easy to dismiss initially and often increase short-term profits for market leaders, but then eventually cannibalize more and more of the most profitable clients. Examples include Xerox ignoring Canon’s ascendance in photocopying, digital cameras’ destruction of the film camera market, transistor radios blowing away tube radios, and many others. Each started with an obviously ‘inferior’ product by the standards of the market, but had other advantages which enabled them to find a new market. They then innovated incrementally until they supplanted the previous market leaders entirely.

The wind industry centred around the iconic three-blade horizontal axis wind turbine is an example of a disruptive innovation. It used to be the equivalent of an early digital camera compared to the high-end SLRs of nuclear and fossil fuel generation. It had different advantages, ones that legacy generation technologies considered immaterial. It was easy to parallelize construction for example because each individual generator was relatively small, and wind farms could incrementally go live. It had no negative externalities to speak of, so environmental reviews were much easier and governments quite reasonably saw it as something worth incentivizing. It had amazing social license, so there was much less of a problem with NIMBYism than putting in a coal or nuclear generation plant. It had no waste to deal with, whether air pollution or spent fuel rods, so there were no long-term liabilities to be concerned about. And it had very low operational costs because it didn’t need any fuel, including the need to transport and store it, so when the wind was blowing and it participated in short-term energy markets it could make lots of money as peaker plants set the price. But it didn’t generate as much electricity as reliably as fossil, hydro, or nuclear plants; the electricity was more expensive per KWH; and it couldn’t provide baseload power, so major players in the energy marketplace dismissed it. Many legacy generation organizations made small purchases of wind farms as a greenwashing technique on top of their highly polluting core assets.

merit order 2Obviously wind energy is an increasingly dominant product in the energy marketplace. It’s now setting peak prices in wholesale energy markets worldwide via the merit order effect. This is cutting into legacy generation organizations’ revenues and profits in multiple ways. New nuclear plants aren’t getting built and it’s tough to fund upgrades. New coal plants aren’t being built outside of a few countries, and old ones are shutting down worldwide. Peaker generation assets, typically gas but sometimes coal, are not making nearly as much profit during peaks when the wind is blowing. Now the question is whether to build gas generation plants or wind farms for major generation assets, and the previous market dominant organizations are scratching their heads.

So, how did wind go from being the crappy transistor radio to such a major disruptive force to the tube radio market of nuclear and coal generation? Incremental innovation is the answer, much of it funded by industry along with governmental support. Here are the major areas of incremental technical innovation that have been playing out over the past forty years:

  • Wind turbine heightthe wind is stronger higher off of the ground and taller wind turbines can catch more of it.
  • Mechanical efficiency: wind turbines have slowly evolved to eliminate unnecessary gearing and friction. Many now have no gearboxes at all, significantly reducing complexity and gearing-related losses.
  • Specialization: Lower wind conditions get bigger blades and smaller generators. Higher wind conditions get narrower blades and larger generators.
  • Aerodynamic improvements: The blades cut through the air better and generate more aerodynamic lift due to changes to their shape through their length to accommodate different relative air speeds between tip and hub.
  • Optimized maintenance: Well understood and costed best practices for maintaining specific wind turbines in specific conditions, ensure that they maintain the optimal balance, lubrication and uptime. Wind turbines now typically see 98% availability to generate electricity, a huge increase over even fifteen years ago and better than any legacy form of generation, partly due to maintenance and partly design optimization.
  • Robustness: Wind turbines are now large-scale machines with better tolerance for high-winds, icing, and other realities of exposed structures. Wind turbine failure, while it makes for spectacular pictures and videos, is extremely rare.
  • Wind modeling: Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 10.31.30 AMUnderstanding and modeling of wind conditions at specific sites is much more accurate now than 20 years ago. This allows the right wind turbines to be selected and sited to maximize use of the wind resource in the specific location.
  • Instrumentation and automation: Wind turbines are heavily computerized today to adjust to maximize power output in different wind conditions. In addition, they are connected through SCADA-interfaces to wind farm managers and grid operators who receive real-time updates on the state of the turbines, allowing much faster response in the event of problems. This maximizes performance in the moment and minimizes downtime.
  • Advanced materials: Materials for blades are being refined regularly, with stronger and lighter blades enabling increased robustness and increased efficiency.
  • Advanced coatings: Manufacturers are now applying advanced coatings which deteriorate much more slowly on blades, especially the leading edge. This increases laminar flow and maintains aerodynamic efficiency for longer.

The combination of these innovations has led to onshore 2.5–3.0 MW wind turbines that see 50% capacity factors in 500 MW wind farms. That’s a long way from the initial wind farms in Tehachapi Pass in the USA for example, where the wind turbines were 25–60 KW devices with capacity factors of perhaps 20%.

upscalingThis highlights another myth of wind energy: that no more efficiency gains are possible. There is tremendous ongoing innovation in wind power generation. The Innwind Project is the most obvious example of that today. It is the follow-on to the successful Upwind Project, which broke the back of technical and engineering challenges for 10 MW wind turbines. The Innwind Project, a consortium of industry organizations, research institutes, universities, and governmental agencies, is aiming to do the same for 20 MW wind turbines. And these are the iconic three-blade horizontal-axis wind turbines of course.

In the meantime, there has been ongoing evolution of business models and incentive programs as well. Global supply chains for onshore and offshore wind energy are constantly being improved. Major freight transportation firms and boutique organizations have built expertise in transporting wind turbine components, including specialized trailers for blades. The many small firms which existed decades ago have either grown into industry giants like Vestas or been consumed by them or other players such as GE and Suzlon.

The evolution of the Feed In Tariff policy mechanism in countries such as Canada and Germany has provided one approach that allows the significant societal and economic benefits of wind energy to be matched by long-term financing stability through guaranteed rates. In the USA, the Production Tax Credit has been much less of a success due to its instability, but many states and municipalities provided additional incentives which enabled the USA to be a long-term leader in deployment of wind energy, although it has been supplanted by China now. Carbon taxes in Canada and Australia have had beneficial impacts on the wind energy market, due to the harsh realities that they represent for fossil fuel generation, although Australia’s is at threat due to the new and regressive government with strong ties to legacy generation technologies that has taken power there.

wind-turbines17It’s worth pointing out, of course, that much the same story can be told about photovoltaic solar generation, with its plummeting prices based on incremental innovations around silicon technology and global supply chains. That’s a story for another person to tell, however.

The industry that has grown around the three-blade horizontal axis wind turbine is one of the disruptive forces of innovation in the energy industry today with over 300 GW of installed capacity worldwide. Other wind generation technology research and development efforts are at best side bets, enabling statistically insignificant amounts of generation in minor niches.

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About the Author

is Senior Fellow -- Wind, with the Energy and Policy Institute. Mike has been a deeply interested observer of energy systems for three decades. After discovering the depth and breadth of disinformation related to wind energy, he became a blogger on wind energy, renewables and global grid concerns, focusing on debunking myths about wind power. As a day job, Mike has the good fortune to work as a business and technical architect on major global initiatives that IBM is uniquely positioned to undertake. He brings his large systems thinking to bear on energy and renewables in a variety of forums, including his blog barnardonwind.comQuora.com and energy focussed discussions world wide.



  • Roderick Read

    Another typo
    The wind industry centred around the iconic three-blade horizontal axis wind turbine is an example of a disruptive innovation.

    You meant WAS right, because you list the history of innovation afterwards.

    As you wrote just before that…

    disruptive innovations are easy to dismiss initially
    Just what you seem to have done at the top of your article.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “Innovation is a wildly overused term. Some people think that having a cool idea is innovation.”

      Innovation involves producing something that works better/cheaper than other known solutions. “I think it will work” is not proof of performance.

      • Roderick Read

        You’re right Bob. Just what the graph says.
        ps. I’ve got my proof of operation. I’m off to improve on it.

  • http://llavealhighway.com/contact/ Michael Bradham

    Thank you for showing that wind map

  • EllisWyatt

    “coal plants aren’t being built outside of a few countries?” This must be a typo. They’re being built at an increasing rate, outside of a few countries like the U.S. Germany last year reached its highest level of coal electricity production since 1990. China announced in 2013 it approved 6 times as much new coal production capacity as in 2012. Japan has gone back to coal. Others are expected. If you’re going to sell soap, at least don’t include so much lye. The difference in the green energy trade publications and all other energy publications is they read like cult pieces, where people just opine, give pep rally speeches and offhandedly ignore facts and aren’t challenged. You’re better than that. Is it a business, or a cult?

    • http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/ Mike Barnard

      China is driving most of the growth in new coal plants, but it’s actually shutting down massive numbers of power plants too and many of the new plants are on hold. Canada has reduced coal generation substantially, especially in Ontario which cut it entirely. Europe as a whole is reducing coal generation. Coal generation is dying in the USA.

      Blips such as Germany and Japan post-Fukushima are just that, blips upward in a significant downward trend for coal generation.

      Pretending that coal generation isn’t being hit hard by renewables and that it isn’t the worst form of electrical generation in the world on virtually every scale and as such is being killed off wherever possible and as rapidly as possible — far too slowly — is an interesting perspective, but too narrow.

      http://www.salon.com/2013/11/21/ontario_ditches_coal/

      http://www.climatecentral.org/news/flurry-of-coal-power-plant-shutdowns-expected-by-2016-17086

      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-16/coal-demand-growth-to-slow-in-next-five-years-on-china-iea-says.html

      https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/194335/Poyry_Report_-_Coal_fired_power_generation_in_Germany.pdf

      • EllisWyatt

        It’s just untoward for a media publication to simply cheer on the home team without telling them what they’re up against. IEA, Wood McKenzie, the Economist, the WSJ. These aren’t cheering on the coal industry, they’re just describing what is truly happening. Europe overall is up. India is grabbing for all it can get. Asia generally, with China leading and now consuming half the world’s coal. The rich west, with its declining share of world wealth, is the only place it is going down, along with their economies. Even the Dalai Lama says wind and solar can’t cut it, and urges nuclear power for emerging countries.
        Saying it doesn’t make it so.
        IEA: “Coal currently provides 40% of the world’s electricity needs. It is the second source of primary energy in the world after oil, and the first source of electricity generation. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been the fastest-growing global energy source. The last decade’s growth in coal use has been driven by the economic growth of developing economies, mainly China.
        Coal use has never stopped increasing and the forecasts indicate that, unless a dramatic policy action occurs, this trend will continue in the future.”
        http://www.iea.org/topics/coal/

        http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21569039-europes-energy-policy-delivers-worst-all-possible-worlds-unwelcome-renaissance
        WHILE coal production and use plummet in America, in Europe “we have some kind of golden age of coal,” says Anne-Sophie Corbeau of the International Energy Agency. The amount of electricity generated from coal is rising at annualised rates of as much as 50% in some European countries.

        “The European Union sees itself leading the world in curbing carbon-dioxide emissions and doing more than any other region to mitigate climate change. But it is also increasing the share of electricity being generated by the most carbon-intensive energy source of all: coal.”
        http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304450904579367074233771140

        http://www.mining.com/coal-to-overtake-oil-as-main-source-of-energy-by-2020-53089/

        http://www.woodmacresearch.com/cgi-bin/wmprod/portal/corp/corpPressDetail.jsp?oid=11622811

        • Bob_Wallace

          “Even the Dalai Lama says wind and solar can’t cut it, and urges nuclear power for emerging countries.”

          The Dali Lama is a nice guy, but he apparently has things to learn about wind and solar.

          As for the world burning more coal, let’s run down the list…

          #1 China. Consumed 50.2% of the world’s total coal consumed in 2012.

          China ​will​ cap coal use starting in 201​7​ and set the cap at the 2011 level. In 2011 China burned 1760.8 million tons “oil equivalent”. That rose 6.4% in 2012. The amount could rise for another year or two but all that extra over-cap amount will have to be dropped.

          China has allowed more coal burning for a limited time while it brings lower carbon generation online. And China has announced that it is very serious about stopping growth in greenhouse gas emission by (hopefully) 2025. China has a history of meeting its clean energy goals early.

          #2 US. Consumed 11.7% of world total in 2012.

          The US has roughly ​2​00 coal plants scheduled for early closure with some already closed. The US has basically quit building new coal plants.

          Hard to burn more coal when you don’t have the capacity.

          #3 India. 8% of the world total in 2012.

          India has announced a carbon tax on coal with the proceeds to go to solar. This is a thumb on the scale that will most likely reduce their coal consumption.

          #4 Japan. 3.3% of world consumption in 2012.

          Japan is considering construction of some new coal plants to replace existing nuclear plants. They are going to have to decide whether to go this route and abandon their CO2 commitments or whether to put more effort into solar, offshore wind and geothermal.

          #5 Russia. 2.5% of 2012 world total.

          Who knows? Tsar Putin is a loose canon.

          #6 South Africa. 2.4% of 2012 world total.

          South Africa has major plans to install more renewables. A quick search found that SA has built no new coal plants in the last 15 years and a planned one has been “delayed”.

          #7 South Korea. 2.2% of 2012 world consumption.

          South Korea has given the go ahead for eight new coal plants to be built by 2027. This would increase their capacity by 8,000 megawatts. This would bring their total capacity to 30,080 megawatts. That’s a 36% increase in a 2.2% world share, a 0.8% increase for the world.

          #8 Germany. 2.1% of the 2012 world consumption.

          Germany is currently completing construction of 11.3 GW of new coal capacity. When they are fully operational 18.5 GW of existing, less efficient coal plants will be closed. The new plants will be much more efficient and they will be capable of load-following, so the 39% reduction in capacity will actually be a larger reduction in coal consumption.

          That’s 82.4% of the world’s coal consumption in 2012. South Korea and Japan might go up a bit, it looks like other countries are more likely to drop consumption levels.

          So this coming increase in world coal use, where’s it going to be happening? It looks like possible generation capacity increases in South Korea and Japan will more than be offset by capacity decreases in the US and Germany. And China is going to make a large consumption cut.

          Is it likely that a small user country is likely build a lot more coal plants and pay for imported coal? (Remember shipping costs.) Or are they likely to look to renewables which will be faster and cheaper?

          Even Australia which produces 6.3% of the world’s coal and burns only 1.3% is cutting consumption.
          http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/statistical-review/statistical_review_of_world_energy_2013.pdf

          • Blair Donaldson

            Thanks Bob, that’s an excellent summary and sounds promising – assuming Tzar Putin doesn’t spoil the party with some wargames in the Ukraine. I think you are a little unfair to loose cannons however. It’s great to see India and China setting meaningful targets. Wish we could do the same in Australia.

          • EllisWyatt

            Wow. It sounds like everyone should take their life’s savings and invest in renewable stocks, because they’re an unstoppable juggernaut. I’m off to my broker.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Germany began a program some years ago to replace its inefficient coal plants with more modern, efficient plants. The plan was to reduce the capacity and amount of coal burned while still generating the same amount or more electricity. Originally Germany was going to build 11.3 GW of coal and close 18.5 GW.

      Since then Germany has found it does need that much coal capacity and will reduce their construction plans by 3.1 GW.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Perhaps you could list the countries that are building new coal plants and in what amount?

  • Ray Del Colle

    “Global clean energy investment hit a record $260 billion in 2011. That’s five times as much as 2004. The shift to clean energy is already happening.” http://clmtr.lt/c/Gay0fz0cMJ

  • Skee

    If you put wind farms next to large reservoirs, you can make hydrogen when you have excess wind produced electricity. The hydrogen could then be burned in a gas power plant on non windy days or when the turbines can’t produce to meet demand.
    The lake is more or less your “battery” for excess production.

  • Peter Gray

    What a top-quality, interesting, useful article! This is among the best I’ve seen on this site.
    A few sentences in, I figured it was another Mike Barnard work, and sure enough…
    Thanks so much – you’re really raising the level around here. Great perspectives on how innovation actually works, useful anywhere, not just wind power.

  • http://syndicatedmaps.com/ Jeff Cohn

    See http://SolarEnergyMaps.com if you want to understand the entire renewable energy complex as relates to traditional fossil fuels extraction and power generation.

  • Rick Kargaard

    Cost is a relative factor. The cost of wind power, as opposed to that produced by burning fuel, will become relatively cheaper as fuel costs rise. Capital cost is also a factor and is likely to go down for wind as the technology matures.
    Fuel demand may go down, but the cost of production can only go up. At some point renewables may have no real competition.

  • Will E

    Where is the MONEY DATA made by Wind Power.
    What is the DOLLAR STORY of Wind Power.
    Wind Power must make BILLIONS of Dollars profit right now.
    What is the cost to install an on shore Wind Park of lets say 500 Megawatt,
    and how many dollars is made in lifespan Energy production period of 20 and 30 years? What is the energy production cost per kWh. over 30 year production time?
    Or is it a secret?????
    Good article.
    Love to read Dollar data on Wind Power.
    can you get some DOLLAR DATA Mike Barnard, please?

    • Ronald Brakels

      Unfortunately wind farms are not money printing presses. Here in Australia the average wholesale price of electricity is about 4 US cents a kilowatt-hour and our latest wind farm under construction will produce electricity for about 4.5 cents a kilowatt-hour. Now half a cent a kilowatt-hour is an absolutely trivial price for Australia, one of the richest nations on earth, to pay to help preserve a livable climate, but even now the Australian Federal government is attempting to weaken or remove our 20% Renewable Energy Target that made our current wind power capacity possible, basically for tribal reasons. The US also has very low wholesale electricity costs and while electricity prices tend to be higher in Europe, in general their onshore wind resources aren’t as good as in Australia or the US. Fortunately the cost of wind power is continuing to come down, but here in Australia we are acting very foolishly.

      So while new wind power is cheaper to build than new coal or gas capacity in Australia, it is not cheap enough to replace existing fossil fuel capacity without subsidy AND/OR the removal of subsidies from fossil fuels.

      • 99 bottles of beer

        “but here in Australia we are acting very foolishly.” too right………

        You hit it on the head, this why Ford, Holden are on the run, with 47.146 kw for the 2500kwh/qtr .

        Yes foolishly Ford and Holden pin there hope on wave energy,

        Only to see the wave generator sink to the bottom of the sea.

    • Bob_Wallace

      No shouting.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Will onshore wind turbines go bigger than 3 megawatts? I shrug my shoulders and say, “I guess so.” As mentioned already, there are two basic suggestions for making them bigger. Make blades in pieces that can be assembled on site or make the blades completely on site. I’d like to add a third suggestion – giant wind turbine construction via giant roboblimp. That’s not really a serious suggestion, I just like putting the word robo in front of other words. But it could be done, even though about the only thing blimps and airships in general have done for the past 70 years is promise they’ll be making a comeback anytime now. Since there are going to be big nacelles available for offshore use, I’m sure people are going to be considering how to use those beauties on land. My guess is the economics of it will result in bigger land based wind turbines at some point, as Victorians and other weirdos make locations for new wind farms artificially scarce. But I could easily be wrong on this. Perhaps offshore wind will show rapid decreases in cost and remove some of the pressure to build bigger on land. And perhaps lowering costs through means other than embiggeration will turn out to be the far more effective course for onshore wind.

    • Blair Donaldson

      “…as Victorians and other weirdos make locations for new wind farms artificially scarce.”

      It’s not so much Victorians, just the stupid Conservative government and its connections to fossil fuels.

      I’d love to see some 3+ megawatt turbines on coastal sites.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Yes, that was definitely a bit of an unfair slur against the poor coal smoke breathing denizens of my neighbouring state. And if you’re looking for big wind turbines, Mcarther wind farm in Victoria uses 3 megawatt ones and is by the coast. I don’t think we have any coastal 3 megawatties here in South Australia yet, but give us time. As soon as we get some sensible behaviour from our politicians we’ll get onto it. I’m expecting our federal leadership to say, “Surprise! Only kidding! We’re not actually short sighted idiots willing to gamble our grandchildren lives on our gut feelings trumping science!” any time now. Well, either that or they’ll peel off their human skins and reveal their true, CO2 huffing, alien forms.

        • Will E

          it is not the government, it is the voters that voted that government.

          • mike_dyke

            “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in” :-)

            Nuclear plants are often on the coast and have good connections to the grid – anyone object if we surround them with wind farms?

    • Rick Kargaard

      You do have a valid point in that there are other options for overland transport besides roads. For years, large transmission towers have been placed by helicoptor, particularily in areas difficult to access by road.
      I have watched the process and it is very fast with no on site assembly required. May not be practical for a wind turbine, But, perhaps modular turbans are in the works.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Well, uncrewed robot helicopters could bring down the cost of helicopter construction. There’s about 3-4 hours of maintenance to an hour of flight for helicopters and getting people out and getting electric motors in could really cut down on the amount of maintenance required and therefore cost. So I think construction by helicopter is likely to become a more cost effective option in the not too distant future.

        And here are 3 megawatt blades being transported in Australia:

        http://i2.wp.com/cleantechnica.com/files/2013/11/Siemens-wind-turbine-blades1.jpg

        My impression is we could go a bit bigger. But some blades are a bit bigger, so that maximum has probably been reached. And it’s whether or not other countries can go bigger, not Australia, which will determine what will happen.

        Since the blades are mostly empty space inside maybe we should fill them with hydrogen to reduce their weight. After all, what engineering projects don’t go better with corrosive, flammable gas?

      • Bob_Wallace

        I was asking about blade weight with that in mind. Looks like a 25 ton blade exceeds what helicopters can transport.

        The CargoLifter, a lighter-than-air-craft, was designed to lift 160 tons. Whether there is enough need to justify building a blade transporter is a question worth some thought.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargolifter

        • Ronald Brakels

          With robot helicopters people aren’t limited to using a single helicopter to lift things. Using long strong cables three or more helicopters can combine their powers to create a sky crane. This is something that would be insane to do with people inside them but can be done with robots, as if things go bad the loss is not so great. This eliminates the expense of having to build one big lift machine for a specific purpose.

          Obviously this there are a great deal of practical problems to overcome to do this, and any helicopter pilots reading this are probably having kittens now, but it’s not impossible. (After all, the movie Pacific Rim clearly showed it could be done. Of course, in that case we could just get the giant robots to directly put the blades on wind turbines when they’re not fighting.)

  • http://ffggippsland.blogspot.com/ Blair Donaldson

    Thanks Mike, excellent article!

  • Omega Centauri

    Incremental improvement that is sustained over a long period of time, can be a disruptive force.

  • JamesWimberley

    God stuff as usual.from Mike.
    The mental model I use is :
    Invention -> innovation -> dissemination.
    The dissemination phase includes the supply chain and reliability factors you mention, and the economies of scale you don’t. Simply making more of anything usually makes it cheaper, through generic processes like division of labour, specialised machinery, and the growing experience of designers and workers. That’s why the learning curves of technologies are surprisingly stable over long spans of time.

    The rapid improvement in wind as in solar technology has been helped by the fact that IP is limited and dispersed. The basic design principles are in the public domain. The patented innovations like GE’s operating software can be emulated by different methods.

    How much further can HAWTs go? The 10-20 MW turbines you cite are only practicable offshore, where parts of more of less any size can be floated to site on ships. On land we have already reached the practical limit of ca. 3 MW and 50-60m blades, constrained by road transport. It would be possible to manufacture bigger rotor blades on site, but you would lose the economies of scale from factory manufacture. My guess is that onshore wind will only see modest further efficiency gains, from manufacturing and O & M more than big design changes.

    However, radical improvements are not necessary to make wind the cheapest generating source of all if you throw in, as you should, a real or implied carbon tax. Rolling out tens of thousands of current designs is a perfectly sound scenario for sustainability.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The Siemens SWT-6.0-120 6 MW turbine has a rotor diameter of 120 metres. so about 60 meter long blades.

      Any idea what blades like this might weigh?

      • Jon

        The Siemens 6,0 MW turbine is now featuring a 154 meter rotor with 75 meter blades. Individual blades weigh around 25 tons.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Blades might be assembled on site without losing economies of scale…

      January 2, 2013

      A new design that calls for wrapping architectural fabric around metal wind turbine blades—instead of the traditional fiberglass—could be the latest revolution in dramatically reducing the cost of wind-produced power.

      That’s the focus of a new project that partners NREL with General Electric (GE) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. Together, they are rethinking the way wind blades are designed, manufactured, and installed.

      The new blade design could reduce blade costs 25% to ­40%, which could make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies, according to a recent GE news release. The focus of the research will center around using architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone.

      The hope for the new blade technology will be to help encourage the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. The new approach to making wind blades would also reduce the often-pricey capital investment that is associated with installing a wind turbine as components could be built and assembled onsite, meaning design engineers would no longer face hassles with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Another bonus: the blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20-year life span and runs without regular maintenance to the tension of the fabric

      http://www.nrel.gov/wind/news/2013/2066.html

      • Matt

        I agree Bob. Betting that over long periods of time no one can come up with a better way to do something. Is normally not a good idea. Don’t know what the improvements to onshore wind will be, or how they will get bigger. But the first I’m sure of and the second I would not bet against. I think we will see taller towers, if by nothing else having “some assembly required”.

        • JamesWimberley

          “Betting that over long periods of time no one can come up with a better way to do something. Is normally not a good idea”.
          The counterexample is commercial aviation speeds.The Concorde SST turned out to be not only a white elephant but a dead end. The latest jets fly at the same speed as the Comet and the 707 of fifty years ago.

          There really are technical/economic walls. Bob produced an actual example why I might be wrong (which would be very good news). General presumptions don’t hack it.

          BTW, there is good reason to think that solar pv is nowhere near its technical limits of efficiency. Once you go multi-junction, the Shockley-Queisser limit ceases to apply. Somebody will figure out how to make a two-layer cell of 30% efficiency cheaply.

          • Omega Centauri

            Jet speed of course runs into limitations due to aerodynamics, in this case transonic and supersonic windflow rapidly create drag and other problems as speed increases. In fact as fuel prices increased, backing off a couple of percent on airspeed was done, because the time versus cost tradeoff is affected by fuelcost.

            Lots of possible ways to have field final assembly of turbine blade pieces, such of two piece blades, or other methods for breaking down a large blade into two or more transportable sections. That happened with towers a long time ago, and now other “architectural” changes are being explored in the pursuit of taller.

          • Peter Gray

            Excellent point, James, esp. about aviation. Despite the failure of SSTs, we’ve spent billions of dollars trying to develop hypersonic aircraft, with nothing to show for it.
            (https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/71714315/Airpork.pdf)

            Glib presumptions in either direction (“Nothing will ever get better than it already is.” or “There’s no limit to what we can do with new technology.” to slightly caricature), have some connection with reality, but neither is much use as a guide for actually doing something.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Very recently someone released info on a wind tower that would be assembled on site (all the components delivered in standard shipping containers) and covered with some sort of skin.

          I can’t seem to figure out the correct search words at the moment.

          Seems like it was a major company.

          We may see mobile factories that travel to the sites of new wind farms and put together towers and blades on site.

          Multi-billion dollar business is going to attract some creative thinkers.

          • eveee
          • Bob_Wallace

            That’s it. Thanks.

            GE’s got the space frame and the “fabric” blades. That’s the package.
            I assume the generator and nacelle could be trucked in broken down in pieces and assembled on site if they are too large for normal trucking.

          • http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/ Mike Barnard

            The space frame is problematic. All turbines used to have lattice towers, but birds roost in them and it maximizes avian mortality. Doubling the raptor mortality is not a promising start.

            I’m not so sure about that one obviously.

          • Bob_Wallace

            This one is covered. Roosting is not an option.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s an inside view.

            It’s not as pretty on the outside as an ordinary tower, but that might be improved.

          • http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/ Mike Barnard

            Interesting. I’ll have to dig in further. Thanks!

    • http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/ Mike Barnard

      Good point about economies of scale. It’s certainly part of the reality, and was an oversight as I was writing this.

    • http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/ Mike Barnard

      PS: just notice the typo in the first word of James’ comment. Please understand that I only claim perspective, not omniscience. ;)

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Mike is top notch. Need more like him around. Have to thank Quora — that’s where I happened to find him.

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