Texas Set To Be Wind Turbine Leader, Down To The Nuts & Bolts

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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.

wind turbine blades wind energy

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:

longer wind turbine blades

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 wind turbine

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:

wind turbine tower by Tina Casey

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.

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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.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3148 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

16 thoughts on “Texas Set To Be Wind Turbine Leader, Down To The Nuts & Bolts

  • Do GE, Siemens and Vestas really need taxpayer help to solve this one? I bet they are all working on segmented blades.

    • Great point. This smells like crony capitalism, whether it is or not.

      Instead of a giveaway (grant), how about a call for offers to sell a certain number of turbines meeting these design specifications, thereby incentivizing companies to compete for the government’s business both on design and price? Then the government can install the turbines in some federal TVA type energy project somewhere.

      Grants involve picking winners and losers. Let competition and the market pick the winners and losers where possible.

  • I hope these new designs will not significantly increase installation time. I like that they are potentially cheaper and use less materials. That’s always good for the bottom line and the environment!

    • If you can truck them in on standard truck, you can drive at normal speed instead of crawling. So save not just transport cost but time. Go on line an look at some of the videos of them trying to move long blades on curvy roads. But yes, they will need to be assembled on site, so that will add time there.

      • But the time saved in transport will more than make up for this. Assembly of smaller components will be a lot faster than before.

  • Nice article, Tina. I particularly like the choice of pictures. Really illustrates how the rear of the blade tranpor truck has articulated wheels like a fire truck. Shows how transporting long blades is difficult.

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  • The wind energy business is not about converting wind to electricity, but transferring massive amounts of money from taxpayers to the owners of the companies that make and maintain windmills.

    • FUD

  • If they can produce a turbine blade that weighs a third less than current composite blades, the implications are far greater than many might immediately assume.

    Imagine a 10-megawatt turbine with a 200-meter rotor diameter that has 5 — not 3 — long-cord blades that would produce power at extraordinarily low winds. It would have a higher capacity factor than a turbine that shuts down in low winds, provide more stable and consistant power, and of course it would broaden the geographic range of windpower viability.

    Such a turbine would be possible only if blades can be made longer, lighter, and installed at lower cost. If they can make a significant leap in blade weight and cost, this really has the potential to be a game-changer.

    • Do you have anything on blade count and performance?

      Couldn’t five blades be feathered so that they would continue to drive the turbine at max speed until the wind became extreme? Would this point output point be lower than a turbine with fewer blades?

      ” if blades can be made longer” Longer than current five-blade units?

      • Bob, I know that adding blades has very little ability to extract more of the Betz’s maximum of 59% of the energy in wind. For example, three blades extract only 3% – 4% more energy out of the wind stream than two blades. Ain’t that a counterintuitive and disappointing fact?

        That’s why most turbines of all sizes have three and not more blades. My understanding is that they have three rather than two for reasons of balance and bearing dynamics — not to produce significantly more power. The sheer cost and weight of current blades makes more blades economically impractical.

        The one desirable thing that more blades will do is start up and produce power at lower wind speeds — at the cost of producing less at high wind speeds. I’ve read that, again, counterintuitively, more blades produce less power at high wind speeds. Don’t ask me what “high” means. If it means above 30 mph, that would actually help moderate output at the extreme end. If it means above 20 mph, then that would cut into the meat of the production envelope.

        However, *IF* blades can be made significantly lighter and cheaper, it might begin to makes five blades economically and engineeringly practicle for low-wind environs, where the greater production at low wind speeds will more than compensate for the hit five blades take at high wind speeds, which in that setting will be a small percentage of the production year anyway.

        IF IF IF.

        • Two blade rigs, especially if the blades were downwind of the tower, underwent some significant load and unloading stress as the blade passed into the tower’s wind shadow. Perhaps there’s some turbulence in front of the tower and spreading the impact over three blades minimized the impact.

          Modern/recent turbines are being designed for much better low wind performance. We’re seeing big jumps in CF largely, I think, due to getting more power out during low wind times.

          You put something up about a Kevlar covering? Got me thinking. How about some sort of frame that could be assembled on site and then a fabric/resin skin surface? The frames could be trucked in sections and the skin applied in a temporary building, even a tent.

          I’m way out of my knowledge pool, just throwing pebbles in to watch the ripples.

        • Is Midland College teaching courses in wind and solar? It should be. I would like to see local W. Texas companies dominate the W. Texas solar and wind industries. I looked up a wind project out there (Glasscock Co, I think) and it’s owned by some out of state company. God knows there are plenty of engineers and machine shops in Midland and Odessa if they can make the mental adjustment.

          There are a lot worse places to live than Midland. There’s a “can do” attitude out there that seems rare elsewhere.

          What’s Conaway doing to help solar and wind in W. Texas? I remember when he was bragging several years ago about getting Penwell designated as one of the finalists for the “clean coal” NowGen project. What a boondoggle that was. I wonder how many checks he got from out of state (certainly out of his district) coal companies for his efforts.

          Is there a healthy solar panel business in Midland/Odessa now?

      • Ya know, Bob, I’ve never seen turbine with five blades other than the small backyard dudes.

        • Did you ever get a chance to look at Altamont Pass in the very early days? There were all sorts of designs. I can recall several with multiple, >3, blades, but can’t recall how many.

          Some egg beaters as well (VAWTs). Over time engineers figured out what works best.

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