Just last spring CleanTechnica noticed that the US state of Texas was set to shed its oil patch image and transform itself into a clean energy leader, when it became one of only four states tapped to host the new Clean Energy Incubator Network. It looks like things are already cooking in the wind turbine department. A Texas company called Wetzel Engineering has made the cut to lead one of two groups working on a $1.8 million project aimed at designing the next generation of easily portable wind turbine blades.
Why Modular Wind Turbine Blades
Portability is a huge issue when it comes to the cost of wind energy. The juiciest winds in terms of wind energy efficiency are located higher up, which translates into taller turbine towers and longer turbine blades.
Reaching those heights is particularly important for wind energy growth in the southeastern states. However, longer wind turbine blades also translate into extremely long truck beds, like this:
Consider the long, winding roads, bridges, and tunnels that lay between a wind turbine manufacturing facility and a wind farm site, and the costs mount up for transporting oversized — as in way, way oversized loads. Prohibitive transportation costs also mean that likely wind farm sites have to be eliminated from the nation’s stockpile of wind resources.
The two wind turbine blade groups will share in a $1.8 million Energy Department grant for new wind turbine blade technology. In addition to lowering the cost of transportation, the project is aimed at reducing the weight of the blades and incorporating other design elements that lead to improved efficiency.
The project requires a soup-to-nuts approach that also includes manufacturing, transportation, and site assembly challenges. In this first phase the goal is to come up with blades longer than 60 meters but the design concept has to accommodate a lot more than that.
The Wetzel And GE Wind Turbine Blade Groups
Wetzel has been working on its new wind turbine blades for quite some time now and by last spring the company was already involved in the Clean Energy Network for its modular approach (the program comes under NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute).
The new grant pairs Wetzel with NREL, Northern Power Systems, TPI Composites, and NextEra to develop a:
…field-assembled blade called “SparBladeTM” using a lightweight bonded composite space frame. Between 62–74 meters, this new technology is intended for operation on multi-megawatt wind turbines and tall towers. The new technology is expected to create a higher performance, lower weight, and lower cost wind turbine blade with significantly reduced transportation costs.
In case TPI doesn’t ring a bell, it didn’t ring our bell either. The company is new to CleanTechnica but it has a 50-year track record in composites innovation, beginning with maritime applications before getting into wind energy.
TPI certainly has been on the Energy Department’s radar. The company was selected to host a visit from President Obama in 2012, in the course of a tour highlighting clean energy and job creation. TPI is also a partner in the Obama Administration’s recently launched Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation in Tennessee, and back in 2010 it opened a wind turbine blade innovation center in Massachusetts.
The GE group also includes NREL and TPI Composites, with a focus on engaging additional industry partners to speed up the introduction of jointed blades in the US.
More And Better Wind Turbines
Once you get used to the concept of jointed wind turbine blades, anything is possible. Last summer we took note of a really strange-looking solution proposed by GE, which involves building a gigantic “nose” over where the blades meet in the middle:
GE has also come up with a space-frame approach to building wind turbine towers. As with the new wind turbine blade project, the goal is to eschew gigantic parts in favor of smaller modules that can be assembled easily on site. Here’s a view looking up from below:
Not for nothing but as you can see from all the activity, there is a pile of job creation involved in all this, while the US fossil fuel sector has been shedding jobs unmercifully.
Industry stakeholders and their friends in the US Congress are betting on increased exports to staunch the bleeding. While the Obama Administration has been loosening up on natural gas somewhat, the longstanding federal ban on crude exports has yet to crumble and the pressure is on for new legislation to open it up.
However, in the latest developments, yesterday our friends over at TheHill.com inform us that President Obama will veto legislation designed to end the crude export ban, and they followed it up just this morning with a report on the Administration’s new $120 million package of solar and clean energy initiatives.
Image Credits: top, courtesy of Wetzel Engineering; 2nd, courtesy of US Department of Energy NREL/PIX 16178; 3rd, courtesy of GE; bottom, photo by Tina Casey.