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New Software Tool Could Push Wind Energy Into Mainstream

The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory believes that a new software tool it has been developing could push wind energy into the mainstream and past the Department of Energy’s goal for 20% of all energy coming from wind energy by 2030.

The software tool, called Simulator for Wind Farm Applications (SOWFA), is being developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to calculate how a number of variables affect the air flow and energy production at wind farms. According to the NREL, SOWFA’s “key innovation” is its ability to simulate an extensive range of scale — from regional weather patterns down to the space between wind turbines and down even further to the movement of electrons. SOWFA’s ability to calculate the impact of undulating ground, turning blades, surface temperatures, and other variables that affect air flow and energy production could be the last little push needed to increase efficiency at wind farms to bring them up to cost parity with fossil fuels.


In the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) Insight Center, NREL Senior Engineer Pat Moriarty, left, and NREL Senior Engineer Paul Fleming review velocity (blue) and turbulence (yellow) in a simulation of the Lillgrund Wind Farm in Denmark. The researchers have written the open-source software tool Simulator for Wind Farm Applications (SOWFA), which can calculate how undulating ground, whipping blades, surface temperatures, and other variables alter the air flow and energy production at wind farms. Image Credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

This open source software is the first to enable developers to improve the performance of a whole wind farm, and not just the individual turbine.

One example of how SOWFA can help wind farm developers is in managing the impact one wind turbine has on its fellows downstream. If a wind farm is laid out in rows and rows of wind turbines, an issue that can arise is the disturbance the foremost wind turbine has on those turbines further down the line, sometimes causing a calm spot such as behind a tree or building to flow downstream. The ramifications on the overall output of a wind farm in these situations can be dramatic, with each wind turbine disturbing the energy generating ability of the turbine behind it.

SOWFA, however, can show turbine manufacturers, wind farm developers, or investors how a yaw can impart a thrust that curves that wake around the downwind turbine.

“Wake, from a power perspective, is lower-energy wind,” said NREL Senior Engineer Paul Fleming, one of the engineers using SOWFA in his research. “If you can move away that deficit of energy, you will have faster winds and more overall production at the wind farm.”

“In the past, wind farms have relied on dissipation to control that energy loss—they just move the turbines farther away from each other,” added NREL Senior Engineer Pat Moriarty, a leader of the SOWFA team. “Now, we can control it in a different way. And there are other ways to achieve more control.”

The NREL has a complete write-up on the SOWFA development and its various applications that is well worth a read.

In the long-term, however, software development such as SOWFA will have incredible impact on the proliferation and impact wind energy has on the overall energy scene. As the NREL said, wind energy only needs a very little nudge to become cost-competitive with fossil fuel energy sources — and that is going to be something investors and governments alike tune into.

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