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Clean Power GE ecoROTR big nose wind turbine

Published on June 9th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


“Ugly Duckling” Wind Turbine From GE Could Produce Some Beautiful Numbers

June 9th, 2015 by  

GE has been quietly working on a radical new wind turbine design for a good two years, and now that the company is finally ready to let the cat out of the bag, we can see why it’s been playing it close to the vest. The new design looks like somebody snuck up behind a standard wind turbine and slapped a 20,000 pound clown nose on its face. It’s funny-looking all right, but the new turbine — which some have dubbed the “big-nosed wind turbine” — is up and running at a test site in California and we’re dying to see what the data show.

To gild the lily, GE has parked the new big-nosed wind turbine on top of its new Space Frame wind turbine tower, so let’s take a look at both.

GE ecoROTR big nose wind turbine

The New Big Nosed Wind Turbine From GE

We have another four months to die because that’s how long the data collection phase for the prototype is going to take, but in the meantime, GE has been forthcoming with an R&D timeline for the new big-nosed wind turbine.

The new wind turbine actually has a name and it’s not “big-nose.” It’s ecoROTR. The idea is to put a dome over the middle of the turbine, where the blades would normally meet. In theory, that lets you milk more energy out of the same amount of wind.

Here’s how GE stacks up the comparison with standard wind turbines:

When wind hits the center of the wind turbine where the blades are attached, it’s wasted. That’s because the blades are basically levers and the same wind generates more force further from the hub.

So far, so good on the test phase. The design started with a styrofoam ball, some toothpicks, and a thorough round of testing at GE’s wind tunnel lab in New York.

The tests indicated the potential for a 3% improvement in performance, which doesn’t seem all that spectacular on an individual basis. However, GE points out that when you tote up the savings from a modern wind farm — and today’s wind farms tend to be gigantic — the numbers add up to a tasty pile.

Anyways, that was enough to justify a small-scale prototype for testing, and those results were satisfying enough for the development of the full-scale dome.

GE is certainly not horsing around with this phase of the testing process. The dome measures 60 feet in diameter and does indeed weigh 20,000 pounds. GE selected a 1.7 megawatt turbine, which is not the most powerful in its lineup (that would be the 3.2 designed for high-speed winds), but it is powerful enough to make the point.


Size Matters

According to GE’s wind turbine product information, the blades for its 1.7–100 megawatt model turbine clock in at 48.7 meters, or almost 160 feet long. Blades for the 1.7–103 model are slightly longer, but you get the point — at half the length of a football field, turbine blades are a bear to transport and install.

In hard-to-access locations, that means you could have to cut new access roads and make other infrastructure adjustments, all of which adds to the cost of a new wind farm and undercuts the  advantage of wind over other power sources.

Even without the adjustments, wind turbine (and tower) transportation often involves local police escorts and other manpower for oversized loads, which adds to the final costs.

So, if the full-scale prototype pans out, keep your eyes peeled for the next iteration from GE. We’re guessing that it will be a component-based dome that can be assembled on site, with shorter blades that will be attached to the perimeter, and the whole thing will be designed for easy transportation — possibly in street-legal batches that don’t require escorts or other special considerations.

That brings us to the Space Frame wind turbine tower prototype. Last year, GE gave CleanTechnica a sneak peek at the new tower (yes, we got to climb to the top), which is base on the same idea: relatively small components that can be transported via existing infrastructure and assembled on site.

The whole thing looks like something you could put together from an Erector set, which is the point. If you take a look at that ecoROTR photo up above, you can see that the dome also lends itself to modular construction, with the frame covered by a lightweight cladding.

Here’s our view of the Space Frame tower from the inside, on the ground looking up:

GE space frame wind turbine tower 2

Photo by Tina Casey.

The white stuff is a polyvinyl cladding that gives the Space Frame a couple of potential advantages over steel tube towers, aside from minimizing the use of steel. Notice, for one thing, that the access ladder is on the inside, which means that if you have to go up the ladder in bad weather, no worries (we went up the tower in a bucket, btw — but we did come down by the ladder).

The cladding also discourages birds from nesting in the tower, which could lead to many unfortunate accidents. GE is also figuring that the cladding makes the Space Frame look a little more like conventional wind turbine towers, which could come into play where aesthetics call for a more conventional look.

Space Frame + ecoROTR could be “the perfect couple” according to GE (add in this and you’ll get a threesome), so we’ll be sure to check back in a few months and see what the numbers show.

Photo Credit (top): ecoROTR wind turbine courtesy of GE.

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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+.

  • hans

    The big nose GE turbine seems to build on experiences with the Enercon wind turbines. These have egg-shaped gondolas to house the ring gearless ring generator. I could not find any publications about this, but heard rumours about a 1 to 2% gain through the combination of the gondola’s shape and the design of the blades near the centre of the rotor.

    The image of the GE prototype suggests that they just added the clown nose, without changing the rest of the design. So they have still some work to do.

    • Bob_Wallace

      What I’m taking out of this is that there is likely going to be more power coming out of individual turbines and the price of wind energy will continue to fall.

      This idea must have modeled out well enough to support a full sized build.
      I wonder if wind can get under 3 cents per kWh for a new install? That would be a fossil fuel killer.

      • Jenny Sommer

        Definitely – once the expensive towers and blades are eliminated and we tap into higher winds 😉

        3ct is good in enough though for generation. The next thing is the system cost with PV, grid and storage.

      • hans

        I agree that if this prototype achieves the promised 3% yield gain, they can get even more by adjusting the blades.

        The picture also suggest that the clowns nose is flat at the back, which will cause quite a lot of turbulence behind the nose. This is not very good for turbines in a wind park, because it will reduce the yield of the turbines downstream. They could solve this by reproducing the Enercon egg in big, but this would make the whole installation very big and heavy, and would probably lead to legal wars with Enercon. So, there is also still quite some work to do.

  • Joe Ferguson

    Think back to the days of the racing airplanes: the hayday was the 1930’s era. Those swift stunt planes were pretty much all engine and propeller. And the propellers had great big “spinners” that covered the hub area and some were almost the diameter of the plane’s fuselage. This served to cut the overall drag of the system and also to get the mechanism at the hub out of the slipstream. The working part of the propeller had more air to bite into, increasing the efficiency of power transfer from engine to prop.
    Most of the higher-performance aircraft of the period used similar spinners or hub shrouds to improve performance. And today’s fanjet engines continue the trend, with carefully-shaped hub covers to improve airflow characteristics (i.e., reduce losses/improve efficiency) attaining much improved fuel efficiency.
    And don’t forget that engineers struggle mightily to achieve even fractional percentage points of improvement in weight, strength, efficiency, fuel consumption. transmission losses, insulation effectiveness, etc. It all adds up.


  • Bob_Wallace

    Getting hub height up uncreases the regions/states where good resources can be found. Look at what happens moving from 110 to 140 meters hub height. All of a sudden it’s clear that the SE has harvestable wind.

  • Jenny Sommer

    There is still much to gain. Double the windspeed = 8x the power output.

    The winds higher up are steadier too. We will eventually reach 600-2000m but obviously not with turbines and towers.


  • JJ

    Oh God. I was going to comment on the writing on Cleantech after reading another article (“kick that momentum into high gear” – ugh), but held my tongue. Then read above … “ready to let the cat out of the bag, we can see why it’s been playing it close to the vest”. Some simple rules of good writing:
    Avoid cliches (like the plague). Don’t mix metaphors.

    I enjoy Cleantech and wish you well, but please read at least one reputable guide to good writing. I recommend Pinker’s Sense of Style.

    • eveee

      While I agree on a technical basis, I think Tina deserves some credit for stealthily inserting Shakespeare quotes into the dialogue. Eye of newt, indeed.
      BTW, avoid like the Plague?

      • JJ

        Yes, avoid cliches… like the plague. I forget who this is attributed to, but Pinker has amusingly extended it. “Avoid cliches like the plague. It’s a no-brainer.”

        You may have had a valid criticism if you’d picked up on my “held my tongue”, but I’ve these excuses: I don’t recall hearing or reading that phrase applied to writing, so it’s perhaps it has a slightly redeeming quality in context; I was writing it in the pub after half a skinful of beer: it’s a comment in a comment thread; I’m not writing an article on a web magazine.

        However, the tone of my comment may have been kinder. But I’m sure anyone wanting to write well would appreciate some valid criticism. We were all young once (and in case you’re really blind to irony, the additional cliche is intended)

        • eveee

          JJ – Its all good. Really, its nice to see some folks that enjoy the aesthetics of writing. And I am more picky than the average bear, but enjoy a fair amount of amusing wordplay and intellectual banter.

          “I never said most of the things I said.”

    • hans

      Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.

      from: http://www.maximumawesome.com/reference/g-safire.htm

      • JJ

        An interesting way to state rules. But taking the bull by the horns it’s getting a metaphor wrong, not mixing metaphors. An example of a mixing might be “spark a crash” (the kind of thing you find in business sections of newspapers).

        The trouble with grammar is that we all think we’re experts, and dumb rules get perpetuated (your link points this out with stuff like split infinitives). The only way to go is to read the best guides, and I guess more than one. I’ve only read Pinker’s, but his writing is superb, and draws on his extensive, renowned, and fascinating cognitive science research (his first popular science book was The Language Instinct – tough going, but fascinating)

  • SayNoToPVC

    I’m curious as to the weight of the big nose cone…is that just a result of materials/durability, or is it intended to act a bit like a flywheel?

    • Offgridman

      I was just coming back to ask the same question. Sent this to my father this morning and he came back with the same query.
      Maybe in addition to the wind diversion acting as a flywheel is part of the efficiency improvement.

      • SayNoToPVC

        Get out your bell bottoms and butterfly collars,..Disco ball in the sky!

        • At night, lasers projected on the inside of the ball might be entertaining. It all depends how much the internal structure of the ball gets in the way.

  • SayNoToPVC

    It’s a shame, although it’s GE so it pretty much figures, that they had to use vinyl to clad the tower. 1 stop forward, two back?

  • Jenny Sommer

    Is there a company investigating wooden towers in the US? Would be interesting to compare them to the steel spaceframe towers.
    How high are those?

    Now if we could make the outer tips bigger…say 150m² and sweep the whole thing through the air somewhere between 600m-2000m where winds are really good…
    No towers would be even better. A whole windplant should fit on one standard truck.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I think that’s one of GE’s space frames designed for 140 meter hub heights.
      I wonder where the practical limit is for tower height. At some point it would see that we hit “good enough”.

      • Jenny Sommer

        What do you think where that limit will be reached?
        Timbertower is currently building the first 140m towers.
        Would be interesting to see if steel frame or wood is more sustainable and which is more economic including transported, assembling and all other factors.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I really don’t know what the practical height level might be.

          Wood or steel or concrete? Probably early to figure out the best material for towers.

      • Jenny Sommer

        160m Laasow was the highest till 2012.
        In Germany concrete/steel hybrid towers are the most economic towers over 60m. The concrete parts are made from 2 or 3 ring segments.
        Roads are smaller than in the US.
        Wooden towers are new but already more economic and can be transported in 40feet shipping containers. They also have a 40 year service life because wood takes dynamic load stresses best and exhibits less fatigue than steel/concrete.
        They also have a smaller environmental footprint than steel or concrete towers ( the foundation is needed anyways…….the generator should stay on the ground but than we would need something like -ki…!!!! ).

        In north Germany every meter more yields between 0.5-1% more production!

  • JamesWimberley

    At first sight. it’s pretty ugly too. It certainly increases the visual footprint.
    The space frame tower is,’t open to the same objection, but the smooth round tower is nice. Surely you could design a geodesic tower with smaller cladding facets, which would give a more rounded outline? Look at the runner-up for a British competition for a pylon design.


  • Bob_Wallace

    A little off topic, but…

    Are we getting close to the point at which we could move nacelles and blades into place with lighter than air ships? Apparently one company is working on a ship that could carry 250 tons of freight and fly up to 100 miles an hour.


    If that becomes possible then we could be looking at using some of the offshore monsters on land.

    Perhaps have a blade factory that could be moved from place to place and make the blades needed closer to where the turbines are installed.

  • Omega Centauri

    I saw where someone was claiming that a dual rotor design, with a small set of blades to cover the central region and then longer blades to cover the outside was said to do even better than this. I wonder whether this fat nose is going to be worth it, it must make drag in high winds during shutdown mode a lot higher.

    • nakedChimp

      not just that.. how does the flow field look like in a farm when a couple of those disturb the flow?

      • Omega Centauri

        I think the claim for both solutions is that the modification improves the harvestability downwind of the WT. So that production increases of an entire so equiped windfarm would be more than for an isolated WT. That makes sense, since the wind we wish to divert around the inner area of the WT doesn’t contribute much to the power output, and diverting it means its energy isn’t wasted.

  • Marion Meads

    Here we are, scrounging up the 3% improvement in efficiency and it piles up to a tasty number. However, when the roundtrip losses of a Tesla Powerall is 8%, we just tend to look the other way because it is Tesla. You know, pile up the 8% losses, it could even way bigger number than the 3% improvement when millions of these Powerall are deployed.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Oh, Marion, you and your silly Tesla hate….

      • Knetter

        I swear she’s a GM stooge, all the praise for the Bolt and nothing but venom for Tesla.

        ” The death toll from faulty ignition switches in cars made by General Motors has risen by 2 to 111. ”

        The only reason I need to never buy a GM vehicle, no amount of blather from corporate shills will change that.

    • Larmion

      I’m sure Tesla is ‘scrounging’ for three percent of extra capacity too. Or rather Panasonic is, as Tesla does little more than designing a sticker to put on Panasonic batteries.

      However, what on earth has the Powerwall to do with a wind turbine?

      • nullbull

        Well, that and open source everything they design so other companies like Panasonic can use (make profit from) it. But, ya know… they’re just a marketing org. What else explains the fact that they’re just re-treading something Panasonic and every other major battery manufacturer already… oh… what’s that you say… no one else made a commitment to the tech until Tesla did?

      • eveee

        PowerWall and turbine are connected by the marionmeads gear.

    • Offgridman

      However with you and others being aware of that 8% loss it would seem that no one is trying to hide or ignore it, much less try to look the other way when making the calculations to decide if its purchase is economically viable.
      What this loss makes obvious to me is that a lot more people need to be aware of the benefits of DC direct usage of their solar and storage electricity the way that us offgridders have figured out.
      Another aspect of these turbine improvements is that they can be counter balanced against the losses of storage. I know that it may not be an exactly equal consideration for the consumer. But with more time of use rates being adopted by the utilities, maybe someday the people in houses or apartments that can’t install solar could some day see an economic return from using storage by buying their power from night time wind when it is cheaper and using it during the day when the rates are usually higher.

      • DC involves high losses in the cabling, at lower voltages. If you can tolerate / afford large gauge wiring, and don’t have too many motors.

        • Offgridman

          Yes when you get into high amperage draws on DC lines you need very heavy cables.
          But DC motors are very efficient, I have a full size refrigerator/freezer that only pulls about 60 watts when running due to a DC powered compressor, and my DC water pump pushing up to about a 140 foot head only uses the same or a little less. So the wire size needs for these are very reasonable.
          The same is true for LED lighting, electronic devices, security cameras and etc. And all without the losses of converting the DC power to AC in an inverter and back to DC at the location of the device using the power.

      • TCFlood

        Offgridmann: You imply that most of the 8% loss comes form the rectifier and inverter. Do you know the relative amounts of loss in general for those versus battery heating with charge/discharge?

    • anderlan

      Because of extra inversion steps? I’m sure hackers can skip them if they want. There are folks with PV array and cell pack and Chademo all behind one inverter (EV motorwerks guys). It’s inevitable that we’ll have building or campus DC bus standards for this type of thing. There already are buildings with DC buses for LED lighting. There’s also DC power over ethernet for phones. The entire 3rd world has a de facto albeit low power home DC bus standard called USB. USB 3 goes up to 100W. We may see a USB 6 at 10kW one day. It made sense for Tesla to ship the product system like it is, I guess. I know Tesla hates unnecessary power losses because they’re NOT going to do wireless charging for that reason.

      • Jacob

        New homes should have USB 3.1 outlets on the wall so you avoid AC all together for most gadgets in the home.

        Not to mention the bloody convenience!

        Recharge my electric toothbrush via USB, my beard trimmer, my phone, my torch, laptop, etc.

        And not carry an AC to DC brick.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You going to run a separate DC grid to power those USB outlets?

          Or are you going to do a whole house conversion? Or build a converter into each outlet box?

          (You can buy the latter right now. Install them yourself.)

          • Jacob

            No separate grid.

            Solar panels (DC) > Powerwall (DC) > USB 3.1 outlets.

            And I said new homes.

          • Bob_Wallace

            So you’re going to install an extra run of copper through new houses. And do a central converter from battery voltage to USB voltage/voltages? Run separate wires for 5, 12 and 20 volts? Any other voltages?

          • Jacob

            look at anderlan’s comment that I replied to.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That does not answer my question.

          • Radical Ignorant

            Your questions are correct. But IMO Jacob idea is worth considering. All lights could use the same DC power line and lights are a) on separate line anyway in most cases b) with led lights dc is perfect.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Perhaps we’ll see new construction “double wired” in the future. But there’s a materials and labor cost for running that second distribution system.

          • Radical Ignorant

            Not so much. At least in my part of world, but I imagine it’s similar quite everywhere. Home electric is never a single circuit. There are always multiple lines with multiple fuses. Just some of them could be switched to DC.
            IMO it’s more about innertia and maybe lack of standard equipment, than about big additional cost. Good question from you is “what voltage?” I don’t remember what uses what but ISB is slowly emerging as standart for multiple gadgets. Then if LED lights can use the same – you’d save on multiple inverters just for lights.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yes, standard wiring design/regs call for lights to be on a different circuit than outlets. If one overloads a circuit and trips a breaker you don’t want the lights to go out.

            Switching ceiling lights to DC could work. If we have an adequate selection of DC ceiling light fixtures. Code would not allow one to use fixtures that could also accept 120vac bulbs.

          • Jenny Sommer

            Not here. We do one breaker a room (light and outlets, heating seperate if electric), Cooking on a separate circuit.
            Gets crowded enough.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Ah, Europe. It’s so old fashioned…. ;o)

            All major draws (electric stoves, AC units, clothes dryers) require a dedicated circuit/breaker here.

          • Jenny Sommer

            You would need a lot of load to trip a circuit here. I can manage in the workshop when the table saw, the stationary planner and the dust extraction start up at once..but there I installed the light on a seperate breaker ;).
            Also got liquid gas which requires forced ventilation so heating is on another circuit. Liquid gas also requires a magnetic switch if installed in the basement which closes in case of power failure.
            The breakers for the rooms are rated 13A. Never ever triped on of them. If one trips thr next light switch is a room away…which really means less than 4m in any case.
            Having the complete light on another breaker would result in complete darkness in case if a short.
            Dryers, stoves, WM,…can be plugged in any outlet here.

            Is there any plan to abandon 110V anyways? Why not just adopt our standard and our plugs 😉

          • Bob_Wallace

            You might be able to run all three at the same time but I’d be surprised if the breaker could handle the all the surge at the same time. Or loading up the saw and planer at the same time.

            i can run my table saw (planer, jointer, whatever) at the same time my washer is running on the same circuit but I don’t. I suspect that is both motors happened to surge at the same time I’d pop the breaker.

            Since you put the light on a separate circuit then you understand the thinking about separating lights and loads.

            I really doubt the US will move away from 120vac as our standard outlet voltage. We’ve got far too much 120vac ‘stuff’ and we’ve already wired our buildings with large enough gauge wire.

          • Jenny Sommer

            It’s only the surge. Just noticed once when someone else switched on the the table saw at the same time I switched the planner and the dust extraction came on automatically.

            You’d need half the copper and less “pole pigs”.
            The US grid seems like a lot unnecessary maintainance.
            Maybe higher voltage would be even better than 230V/50hz.
            I wonder what one would use if the grid would be designed from zero.
            Probably something under 1kV but higher than 230V.
            A 2pin+1full pin ground plug maybe such as the French. Only goes in in one direction though. Maybe the Schuko Plug/Socket isn’t that bad.

            We don’t have to agree on one language but a common global electrical systemsystem standard would be great.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It would save some copper to use higher voltages, but 120vac is so embedded into both Americas and Japan that it’s likely to stick.

            The US grid does need more maintenance/repair than some European grids but that largely comes from us being so spread out. It’s a lot more expensive to bury the lines here than in densely settled places like Europe.

            Problem with going to higher voltage is arching when someone plugs something in that’s already switched on.

            There might be some advantage to only one voltage but the two systems have enough users that economies of scale have likely been maximized. And now that most electronics are dual voltage the problems of travel are largely eliminated.

            I am awaiting delivery of my 240vac coffee grinder to take to Thailand with me in a couple of weeks. That and a few pounds of French roast….

          • Jenny Sommer

            This is done in hotels. It is cheaper to insure if you use a dedicated 12V-36V lighting system.

    • Otis11

      Their two totally different things – go try and find an economic power storage method that has better than a 92% trip efficiency. Best of luck to you…

      Second, even the convoluted point you try to drive here is basely wrong – being able to store power actually saves a significant amount of power. Right now Coal, Nuclear, NG, every thermal plant I’m aware of wastes much more than 8% as it cycles up and down to meet demand. Adding storage to allow it to cycle up and down more efficiently saves a significant amount of power (only a few percent for the few plants that provide relatively constant base load – which are exceedingly and increasingly rare – but is often in the low double digits – 20% or so – for others). This absolutely justifies the round trip power loss for storage.

      • Jacob

        The other bottom line is that Powerwalls will get cheaper over the next 5-10 years.

    • eveee

      Did you get up on the wrong side again Marion?

    • djr417

      I think you just jumped the shark.

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