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Inspired by children's toy, Vestas introduces a modular, "snap-on" concept to lower the cost and speed production of wind turbine nacelles (photo courtesy of Vestas).

Clean Power

Real-Life “Lego” Wind Turbines Coming Soon To A Wind Farm Near You

The race is on to prevent catastrophic global warming, and if all goes according to plan, the Danish children’s toy maker Lego can pat itself on the back for lending a hand. Denmark also happens to be the home base of the leading wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, which is taking a page out of Lego’s modularity book to help accelerate the pace of manufacturing wind turbines and drop the costs, too.

Modularity The Key To Low Cost Wind Turbines

Vestas leaked word of its new Lego-style snap-on system for wind turbines earlier this week, in a company blog post dated November 17.

“Continued scale and technology development play an increasingly important role in ensuring a balanced and stable supply of energy to communities all over the world,” wrote Vestas CTO Anders Nielsen

“To reach this goal, we need to find a way to build scale, both across the turbine value chain, and across the global energy system,” he added.

As Nielsen sees it, the global wind industry supply chain and transportation network have both reached a tipping point. They functioned fairly well back when wind turbines were relatively small. However, transporting bigger, longer turbine blades soon became a problem, partly due to the difficulty in maneuvering around bridges, tunnels, tight curves, narrow roads and other legacy infrastructure.

The same goes for other turbine components. The height of turbine towers has to increase in order to accommodate longer blades. The latest crop of larger, more powerful wind turbines also needs scaled-up equipment to connect the blades at the top and generate electricity.

Let The Modularity Journey Begin

There is a special word for the space at the top of a wind tower turbine that houses the electrical systems. It is called the nacelle, and that is the place where Vestas expects to get the most bang for its modularity buck.

The idea is to stop battling the headwinds of existing manufacturing and transportation systems, and instead work with the world as it is.

“We aim to take advantage of industrial standards rather than challenging them, taking the entire value-chain into account in the efforts to ensure continued renewable energy competitiveness and scale,” Nielsen explains.

If all goes according to plan, the modular design is a win-win-win for Vestas. The idea is to separate the nacelle into units that are designed to fit into shipping containers and other legacy systems in the global economy. Vestas anticipates that the modular approach will result in lower maintenance costs and enable wind turbines to be upgraded more routinely, in addition to lowering the cost of transportation.

No word yet on whether or not Vestas is saving money on the manufacturing side. Nielsen describes the company’s modularity concept as a Lego-style “simple click-on system,” which sounds simple until you figure on all the extra work that goes into making sure the parts that do the clicking actually work as intended.

However, even if the snap-on parts are more expensive to fabricate, the lower cost of transportation could easily offset the extra expense, and then some.

The Hidden Cost Of Wind Power

We’ll find out soon enough. According to Nielsen’s blog post, the modular nacelle is already at work on the company’s new V236-15.0 MW offshore turbines.

Meanwhile, let’s circle back around to that thing about transportation, because it really is a thing. Long wind turbine blades and other oversized loads can require special highway permits and escorts among other expenses, pushing up the installed cost of a wind farm.

The offshore wind industry can take advantage of portside manufacturing and barge transportation to handle the latest generation of large wind turbine components, but that door is not open to land-based wind development.

Here in the US, for example, the curvature of existing railways is one key feature holding back the transportation of longer, more efficient turbine blades. As one solution, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently modeled the idea of building additional flexibility into wind turbine blades. Turbine blades already bend a bit, and the idea would be to engineer enough bend so they could be transported on four rail cars without snapping apart in the middle of a curve.

“This research can aid in massive deployment of wind energy in different regions of the country — even parts of the country that typically haven’t seen as much deployment,” said NREL’s Nick Johnson, who co-leads the Energy’s Department’s Big Adaptive Rotor Project.

Wind Turbines + Shipping Containers = More Wind Power

Meanwhile, Vestas is already taking the next step along the road to modularizing its wind power business.

Last week, Vestas announced a new containerized shipping partnership with the shipping giant Maersk, including airborne as well as marine transport.

Nielsen had something to say about that, too:

“By partnering with Maersk, we can further accelerate the deployment of wind energy and protect profitability, while working together on developing solutions that can make our supply chain more sustainable. We want to create a sustainable, resilient and predictable supply chain and by partnering with a world leader as Maersk, we strengthen our supply chain, our partnership setup within transport and create opportunities to improve sustainability.”

Sweet. The idea is to provide Vestas with a reliable stream of containers at a fixed price, which are two really big advantages considering the impact of the ongoing shipping container shortage on the global supply chain.

Look Out, Here Come All The Wind Turbines

Vestas and Maersk are already anticipating a green hydrogen angle to the partnership, which is no surprise considering that wind power and water are involved.

In the meantime, Vestas is not letting the grass grow under its feet.

Last month Vestas announced that has been tapped as the preferred supplier for the long awaited 2.1 gigawatt Empire Offshore Wind 1 and 2 projects in New York, featuring the new V236-15.0 MW wind turbines.

The ink hasn’t dried on the deal so don’t hold your breath, but Vestas seems pretty confident that a firm order will materialize.

While that is percolating, another long-awaited offshore wind farm is taking shape in Massachusetts. The Bay State almost lost the US offshore wind race when its proposed Cape Wind offshore wind farm bit the dust several years ago, but the new Vineyard Wind project is in position to pick up the baton.

Just yesterday Vineyard announced that it has officially begun laying cable for the new 800-megawatt offshore array, the first step towards construction of what will become the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the US.

The US has been slow to the offshore wind party, but now it has the advantage of a maturing supply chain and next-generation technology.

All that’s needed is a trained workforce. That should materialize with the help of child care, family care, educational, and job training provisions in the Build Back Better bill supported by President Joe Biden.

The bill is expected to pass the House of Representatives today, leaving the ball in the courts of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin for final passage.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Vestas wind turbines at the Norther offshore wind farm in Belgium (photo courtesy of Vestas).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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