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.
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.
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.
Obviously 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 height: the 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: Understanding 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%.
This 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.
It’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.