A Glimpse at How Wind Power Evolves

by Henry Kaplan | Jul 11, 2014 |

(The 1941 Smith-Putnam wind turbine: the first wind turbine with a megawatt-plus capacity.)

The wind energy industry is still very young, and has just begun to see success in recent years. So it’s understandable that wind farm operators are hesitant to make radical changes to the fundamental technology and equipment that they have built their operations on. But as a young industry built on an emerging technology, they also know that their success depends on their ability to move forward and innovate.

So they’ll need to look very, very closely at the new designs for wind turbines that several major companies are trying out. Rather than the familiar three-blade design, these new turbines have just two. And rather than pointing them upwind, these new designs place the two turbines downwind, behind the support tower.

According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, these new designs could be a boon for offshore wind farms in particular:

Offshore wind is steadier than most places on land. But installing and maintaining offshore wind turbines is expensive, costing twice as much as onshore wind turbines on average.

Two-bladed turbines cost less because they use fewer materials. The removal of one blade makes the rotor lighter, which in turn makes it possible to place the rotor on the downwind side of the tower. Conventional wind turbine rotors face the wind and must resist bending back into the turbine’s tower, but downwind rotors can use lighter and even hinged blades that bend away from heavy gusts.

Of course, these design features have all been tried before. (Check out the picture of the two-blade Smith-Putnam wind turbine from 1941.) But as engineering moves forward, perhaps we’ve now solved some of the problems that made similar designs less feasible in the past.

The question remains, though, of just who will take a chance at such a large scale. The MIT Technology Review makes one suggestion:

Larry Miles, CEO of the Wind Turbine Company, which made the demonstration turbine that failed in 2002, is not optimistic about the wind industry’s willingness to endure the warranty and financing risks required to truly rethink its products. For that reason, he has set his sights on designing small, 100-kilowatt turbines for distributed wind power applications, rather than the utility market.

Still, Miles thinks a Chinese firm might just have the financial wherewithal to innovate at utility-scale. “If anybody does it, it will be Ming Yang. They have enough substance to do it, and they have the Chinese market,” he says.

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