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Grab A Sneak Peek At GE’s New “Space Frame” Wind Turbine Tower (CleanTechnica Exclusive)

GE is launching a new wind turbine tower next week and CleanTechnica just got a chance to go inside and see what makes it tick, so we’re going to share that with you right now before practically anybody else gets wind of it. The new tower, which GE has dubbed the Space Frame Tower, is a great example of the different factors that have gone into taking the wind industry from an exotic outsider to a juggernaut player in energy markets in the US and around the globe, all within just a few years.

From the outside, the Space Frame Tower looks like a regular tube-shaped turbine tower with a bit of an Eiffel Tower splay to the bottom, and there’s your clue regarding what’s hidden behind that plain white exterior: a new approach to turbine tower design that GE hopes will play into the demand for taller wind turbines.

New GE Space Frame Wind Turbine Tower

GE Space Frame Wind Turbine Tower (Photo by Tina Casey)

The Space Frame Tower

With taller turbines, wind energy can be harvested more efficiently from a broader range of sites, so in case you’re wondering why we’re making such a fuss over a tower, there’s your answer.

We’re not the only ones making a fuss. Just last month, the US Department of Energy launched a new initiative aimed at helping the wind industry to develop taller wind turbine towers.

Now let’s cut to the mustard. Those of you who are familiar with the engineering term “space frame” already know what’s afoot under that plain white exterior. A space frame refers to latticework, with the Eiffel Tower being one classic example.

In the form of GE’s new wind turbine tower, the basic idea is to cut down on the amount of steel required for the frame. The tower has a five-sided lattice configuration that allows for a much wider base than the familiar tube-style turbine towers, which adds rigidity and stability. That in turn enables the tower to gain height over its conventional counterparts while reducing the added cost of materials.

new GE space frame wind turbine tower

Space Frame interior (Photo by Tina Casey)

For the record, the photos above are the prototype Space Frame Tower GE showed us in the Mohave Desert in California. It clocks in at 97 meters tall in accordance with current FAA limits. The commercial version that GE will launch next week is 139 meters tall, and the company foresees demand for turbine towers in the 150-160 meter range.

Many Paths To Low Cost Wind Power

Aside from the high-efficiency turbine itself (the Space Frame Tower, of course, sports GE’s “Brilliant” turbine), many other factors are involved in delivering wind power that’s competitive with fossil fuels.

In the case of the Space Frame, one obvious factor is the reduced need for steel in a lattice-style frame compared to a continuous tube.

Another important consideration that GE paid special attention to is shipping costs. Those can really add up when dealing with the huge components that go into utility-scale wind turbines and their towers. Adding to the complications are safety regulations for the oversized flatbed trucks needed to haul the components, which can involve additional costs and delays related to weather, police escorts, and even holidays.

GE tackled those costs by designing the Space Frame to fit into standard 40-foot shipping containers, so the shipping logistics conform to existing constraints.

Given that the wind industry is maturing rapidly, another consideration that helps to keep costs under control is working within established industry conventions relating to equipment and labor.

To that end, GE designed the Space Frame to be assembled on site using standard short and tall cranes used for tubular towers, and the required labor skills are familiar across the construction industry.

As for why nobody has ever thought of this before, conventional lattice towers were once thought to be unsuitable for tall wind turbines because of maintenance issues related to stress on the fastening bolts.

GE has worked around that issue by using bolts that have long proven their hardiness in high-stress construction fields including bridges, shipping, and skyscrapers. GE’s accelerated “HALT” testing indicates a lifespan that exceeds the 20-year standard and appears to be closing in on 40 years.

Getting back to the turbine itself, GE is also adding a battery-integrated model to its Brilliant line. That will enable wind farms to self-regulate their input, helping to alleviate the complexity of integrating variable energy into the grid.

And finally, if you want a nice snapshot of regional wind industry growth over just the past decade or so, take a look at what grid operator MISO has been up to in the Midwest.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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