Clean Power

Published on March 6th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


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

March 6th, 2014 by  

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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Chris Marshalk

    Australia should be surrounded by these but the government is too bloody stupid.

  • Otis11

    Tina – I think this might be my favorite article from you. Actually one if the best articles I’ve read in a while: succinct yet forethought some probable questions and provided the answers. Nothing complicated or unnecessary…. just some good research. Very nicely done. Hope to see more.

  • Christopher Miles

    Great Article, Thanks!

    Space Frame seems obvious in hindsight. Just as Solar Companies (and The US Sun Shot program) are each focused on total cost (cells/panels/installation) – it’s great that prominent turbine manufacturers are getting into the total cost mindset.

    Quick suggestion for the editor- The expression /idiom is “Cut to the chase”
    “Cut the mustard” is something else entirely

  • Hans
  • Fan of the site

    Why did it take five paragraphs to get to the point? This and the article about the snobby friend who bought a phev Cadillac could’ve used an editor.

    • People have different reading preferences. Can’t please everyone all the time…

  • Shane

    Great .. now they can build 100ds of them in and around the cities where the energy is used… shouldn’t be a problem as there is no health or noise issues . Makes sense in relation to the grid .. property value will increase because they aren’t a blot on the landscape and are actually quite majestic. .shouldn’t be any nimbys as they only live in the bush. . What’s the chances. ?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Perhaps you haven’t noticed. People generally don’t like living where the wind blows like stink. You’ll find few cities where the best wind resources are found.

      • Shane

        So your saying no one likes living in Canberra ?
        The brindabella mountain range that runs alonng the western side is no good ? There wouldn’t be a better site in Australia. . So come on tell me why it is they would never build at that location? Give you a hint once built and thousands stormed parliament house to have them switched off it would be the last turbine built in Australia. .

        • Bob_Wallace

          Perhaps you could get someone to help you with your sentence construction. Then it might be possible to understand your post.

          • Shane

            Wind blows like stink ??? Yer I need help.
            You lefties are so tough behind your keyboards, is that the best you have .. bashed at school much?

        • Sean

          Shane as someone who is looking to move to canberra, no – no one likes living in Canberra 😛

          as far as why there are no turbines in the brindabellas, i honestly couldnt answer that. There are a number of farms just outside canberra, (including the largest in the state) on lake george, and there are a few to the north at gunning.

          It could be that the Logistics of developing in that location is too complex, or the risk of bushfire that would destroy them is too great. It could be that the shape of the mountains develops turbulence that would damage the turbine.

          Finally as most of the Bindabellas is covered in national park i would think that most businesses would prefer to develop all the other potential sites rather than try and reduce the amount of national park.

          Also this is an american centric site, you should have used chicago as your example.

          • Shane

            Hey Sean.
            Maybe not in the winter but wouldn’t be a better place for the rest of the year.. summas a bit hot, yer your right move to wollongong.. I live 80 ks north of Canberra and have traveled around Australia and the world a bit ( have been in Chicago) its no more windy here than most places I have been , except perth. . That place is ridiculous. .
            You might have noticed all the wind farms are north and away from the city , I put the same question to Katrina hodgekinson and her words were “well exactly”..
            Two things, the companies claim the environmental impact is minimal so these industrial turbines being so green shouldn’t be a problem in a national forest (the country to the north end isnt anyway)
            You mentioned the fire risk and yes you are spot on massive problem that I dont want here (rye park )
            The project manager told me we would be collateral damage. . We will see about that…

          • Sean

            Hey Shane,

            Rye Park, isn’t too far from Young (and ive driven there more times than i care to remember), and i agree, lovely country out there. (I wouldn’t call it Canberra though :P)

            Problem with putting the turbines up in national park (or state forestry) is when the bush is alight, you will melt the fiberglass rotors, Grass fires are very intense, but they dont last as long as a bushfire, so the rotors aren’t affected. Also the turbine tower has to be taller to clear the trees and trees slow the wind down, so its less cost effective. (they do have them in forests, or on the edge of forests in europe, but we have bigger forest fires)

            As far as location goes, the other key factor in where windturbines go is having access to high voltage powerlines.

            The ones next to Lake George have a 330KV power line running just south of there and thats where they send their power to.

            Have a drive out along the Tarago Collector road on a windy day and have a look for yourself. Run with the wind is a fun run put on by the wind guys at Woodlawn wind farm.
            ( which is organised so you can go on the property and stand up next to them, but you can get pretty close just from the road

            The ones at gunning are really easy to get to, but you’ve got the noise of the highway so its not as pleasant.

            As for the benefits, well they pay the landholders a pretty big rent for use of not much of their land, and they don’t have to rely on rain to get paid.

          • Shane

            Sean I have a mate and like you thought wind farms would be a good thing all round and joined in and had them placed on his property , they where around 3ks from the homestead . Everything seemed fine for the first few weeks and then it started . Now he has had to move his family away and only returns to work sheep . So please dont roll out the simon chapman and his lefty army dribble .. I know it for fact.. and he was a host..
            I did scoff when you said farmers are paid big money .. thats not big money when you consider they harbor half the liability .. I would be pretty pissed knowing they are getting $800 000 per turbine per year too.. ( they wanted to put them on this property also before I get the jeleous neighbor crap..) no way I was going to deal with a $2 shelf company.
            Point taken on the heat from fires and the blades. Makes sense. I’m a fire captain and adds to why I have instructed my crew that we shan’t be going anywhere near grabben gullen if ever the incident arose. .

          • Sean

            You mentioned they harbour half the liability for the turbines? what does that entail? Also is $800k per year per site correct? You can buy 500 hectares 5kms from Rye Park for $850k that would make the return on investment something stupid like 94%
            even for $80k per year per site 1 turbine with a dirt road encircling it would keep you from producing on perhaps 100square metres, or 0.01hectares, which is the equivalent of $8million/hectare i dont know if you could get that grazing

            If the wind turbines are affecting your mate so much that he has to leave, does he flog his home as a “environmental escape” to city dwellers who would love to spend some time up close. with a bit of luck they might catch wind turbine syndrome. If on the other hand it is petty politics and schoolyard bullying by his neighbours that is the cause, it will have no effect, other than making your mate a little better off financially than he currently is.

          • Shane

            Mate I will ignore your last part of that comment as its just straight up wind industry puppet dribble.. you can call in next time he is up and say it to his face , have your insurance paid up…
            You must have miss understood the 500k to 900k per turbine is the figure the developer takes in subsidies
            Whilst the farmer gets 7.. doesn’t sound such a good deal now hey…
            If you ever get to read a contract you will see a clause that the developer is indemnified from any third party . So if the turbine should catch fire and burn out his neighbor than he is just as liable. . Or his neighbor should sue for nuisance. , its the farmer that gets the bill..

          • Sean

            Ah my mistake, i thought you said the farmer was getting $800k per year per site in rent (and i couldnt believe that)

            still at $7k you are getting the loss of land offset – the dud in the contract appears to be the fact you have to insure the whole exercise for public liability. Which raises the question why don’t they have their own insurance, or at least give people the choice of taking the liability for extra cash?

            As far as the “environmental escape” goes, surely it is the best chance you have to get supporters to your cause? If it is as bad as you say surely you will be pumping out converts? (and getting some cash in to offset having to live somewhere else?)

            If i had to move out of my house because of some new development i would invite every tom dick and harry around to show them how bad it is. Especially if they might get stuck with one too.

          • Calamity_Jean

            Actually, as a Chicagoan I need to say that Chicago is called “The Windy City” not because of actual physical wind, but because of the “windy” bragging of politicians who were trying to get people to move to Chicago back in the 1800s.

        • Herb

          You’re attributing an awful lot of manliness to a nation who allowed their government authoritarians to take their .22 rifles from them without a fight.

          Buncha wussbags.

          If the government here in the States tried to take our .22 rifles from us, we’d defend our .22’s with our .30-06’s.

          So you’re saying that you won’t storm the capital to keep your guns, but you WILL storm the capital to have unsightly wind turbines “turned off?”

          Do I have that right?

          Is that your actual position?

          Is that your final offer?

          If you just don’t like windpower, say so.

          • Shane

            No herb you dont have it right.. any mass shootings this week ?.. and they only took the guns from weirdos like you. .

          • Bob_Wallace

            “If the government here in the States tried to take our .22 rifles from us, we’d defend our .22’s with our .30-06’s.”

            I had a neighbor who said something silly like that.

            I pointed out to him that if he fired on us troops with a 30-06 he’d only do it once. They’d simple drop a missile on his ass. They aren’t going to mess around with some ridiculous cowboy with a peashooter.

  • Doug Cutler

    Yet more ways to cut the cost of wind!

  • jburt56

    Now add thin film PV to the tower materials.

  • Greater height = more energy! And solar PV on the faces of the tower that get direct sunlight makes all the sense in the world. The grid feed connection is already in place, and the wind tends to blow more at night, so PV panels would tend to even out the electricity produced by am installation.

    • Omega Centauri

      Not a very god orientation for the panels. And the location may not be particularly sunny also. Separate WTs and PV makes sense most of the time.

      • The angle to the sun has less of an affect than you would think. Having something is better than nothing.

        • Neil and Omega, you are both right. Every bit of energy is welcome, but you have to weigh cost yield, so it boils down to simple economics. Now probably not economic due to the 90% angle, but with cheaper solar cells it might very well become cost-effective.

          People will have to like the colour though. Wind turbines are usually white for a reason.

  • Larry

    TIna, you are a great writer/reporter. Keep it up!

  • Scott H

    should probably get more excited about this.

  • Hans

    One of the reason lattice towers went out of style was that they attracted birds, who had a higher chance of getting killed by the rotor. By cladding the lattice this problem is avoided. Simple but clever.

    • Omega Centauri

      Should have been obvious from day one. It is probably the maintenence issue alluded to in the blurb that held this back.

  • mike_dyke

    Why don’t designers of these towers replace the covers with solar panels? Wind towers are often in nice sunny places and there’s nothing getting in the way of the sun (apart from a blade every so often), so this would give an extra boost to the power generated.

    • Offgridmanpolktn

      Just as a guess the additional weight factor probably makes the engineering requirements to high for a good return economically. As was noted in the article the revolutionary aspect is the reduction in materials and weight are the main factors.
      Any solar farms seen personally are all spread out to minimize support framing and having to deal with the wind factor that he high heights increase.
      This is just from someone with some engineering background, maybe someone from the solar or wind industry would see it differently.

      • mike_dyke

        Thin film solar panels should get rid of a lot of the weight issues.

      • Bob_Wallace

        For best performance solar panels have to face the Sun.

        Mount panels on this almost vertical surface and a lot of the energy would be reflected off the panel and not turned into electricity.

        • mike_dyke

          Vertical is the perfect angle for the sun rising/setting times – leaning back a little is better for later in the day. Perfect (if you’re not tracking the sun) is facing due south at an angle half way between highest sun and lowest sun.
          Where does the reflection come in? I could agree if the panel was horizontal about reflection, but vertical?

        • Bob, on that exact point, what about this – use slightly modified Solar PV Panels instead of just Mirrors, for Concentrated Solar Power Plants – like the new California Triple Tower Plant – Ivanpah CSP Plant, If there was some way to make PV Panels that function well yet reflect sufficient light to the Boiler Towers, then they could get day time power from the PV as well as both day and night power from the CSP Boilers, if done right!

        • Herb

          Right Bob, but at extreme latitudes like Sweden — like Scandinavia — eight or nine months out of the year those vertical PV panels are going to be facing the Sun ! When the Sun is cranked over 60 to 70 degrees from vertical, those vertical panels are at the correct angle.

          I think this is actually a brilliant idea, but it’s appropriate only for high latitudes.

    • Michael Berndtson

      I’m thinking that renewable energy may be similar to how stereophiles build their hi fi music playing systems. There was a time when a stereo system included all the devices in one box. This included the amplifier, receiver, turntable, eight track player, cassette player and on and on. Nowadays one would have to include CD and MP3 players. And don’t forget streaming capabilities. I’m not even going to touch pre-amplification and speakers.

      The problem with lumping everything together is that technology evolves separately and at varying rates. So a super cool windmill structure could be state of the art for years to come. But it’s saddled with PV panels with already outdated efficiency.There would be additional modification costs down the road. Keep it simple.

    • Timothy

      We have to climb on the top I do not want to walk on solar panels. Plus, it would get in our way, Wind power is trying to figure out ways to use the wasted energy we have already. Some proposals were to charge batteries or duel generators. So, why add soar panels on a wind turbine that already has reserve or ready to use, not going to the grid, power?

      • mike_dyke

        I am not proposing that ALL covers are changed into solar panels and if you look at the pictures, they are only proposing to put covers on the outside of a lattice work tower which has the access ladder on the inside hence you could still accee the works without stepping on a panel.

        One reason for adding solar is that wind is not as strong during the hours around noon where solar is at it’s best hence both technologies together would give a balanced load.

        If you want a cheeky situation, the solar panels would provide enough power to run tools that engineers need during maintenance!

        In any case, solar would provide a good backup during maintenance of the turbines etc. The amount of electricity generated would be reduced during those periods rather than zero. (unless you do maintenance at night!)

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Ruukki has also similar “Space Frame” wind tower that can reach 160 m heights.

    Wind power from heights never reached before

  • Love the pics, Tina! 😀

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