New Wind Turbines Compete Head on with Cheapest Fossil Fuel

February 11, 2013

Competition + mass production + experience + new technology = Wind turbines competing head on with gas turbines.

And don’t believe for a moment that they won’t continue to improve, or that the cost of gas will stay as low as it is today.

Takeaway: the more fossil fuel you use, the more expensive it gets. The more renewable energy you use, the cheaper it gets.

MIT Technology Review:

Superficially, wind turbines haven’t changed much for decades. But they’ve gotten much smarter, and considerably bigger, and that’s helped increase the amount of electricity they can generate and lower the cost of wind power.

GE’s new 2.5-120 wind turbine, announced last week, is a case in point. Its maximum power output, 2.5 megawatts, is lower than that of the 2.85 megawatt turbine it’s superseding. But over the course of a year it can generate 15 percent more kilowatt hours. Arrays of sensors paired with better algorithms for operating and monitoring the turbine let it keep spinning when earlier generations of wind turbines would have had to shut down.

The technology is part of a trend that’s made wind power almost as cheap as fossil fuels. In 1991, wind power cost 15 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost has now dropped to 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour, says Ryan Wiser, deputy group leader for Electricity Markets and Policy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in Berkeley, California. New natural gas power plants are expected to generate electricity at about 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Indeed, last month the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said that the latest data on wind turbine performance and costs suggests that wind power is likely to be more cost-effective than natural gas over the next 20 years, and it could account for the majority of new generating capacity added over that that time in Texas. Before the council factored in the latest data, it had expected all new generation to come from natural-gas plants.

The biggest impact on electricity production comes from making wind turbines bigger. Increasing the size of a wind turbine’s blades, and making the tower taller, allows a turbine to capture more wind, especially at low speeds. Making wind turbines larger is getting difficult, in part because they’ve have grown so large that the wind conditions at the highest point of the blades’ sweep can be very different than those at the bottom. To compensate for the difference, GE had to develop control algorithms to respond to input from a variety of sensors as the blades spin. This helped the company step up from a 100-meter-diameter wind rotor to a 120-meter one.

Avoiding downtime from mechanical failures also helps boost electricity production. If something goes wrong with a wind turbine, it’s often shut down until technicians can arrive, climb the tower to assess the problem, and then make repairs—a process that can be especially difficult and time-consuming because wind farms are often located in remote areas. With its latest design, GE is networking its wind turbines to make them more resilient. For example, if the wind speed gauge on one wind turbine fails—say, because it becomes encased in ice—the turbine can use data from a nearby turbine’s anemometer (with algorithms for correcting for the different locations of the turbines), eliminating the need to shut down.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, is studying how the turbines within a wind farm can adjust their power production to maximize the power output of the entire farm. For example, if some wind turbines at the front of a wind farm produce less power than they’re able to, this could leave more wind for the other turbines. “It’s a shift from thinking about individual wind turbines to thinking about power plants,” says Fort Felker, director of the National Wind Technology Center at NREL.

Just over a decade ago, a typical wind farm with 2.5 megawatts of wind turbines generated less than 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. GE says its new wind turbines will generate 10 million kilowatt hours a year, more than doubling electricity production. (Increasing power output helps lower the price per kilowatt hour, as long as the cost of the installed turbine doesn’t increase proportionally.)

Technology improvements may have brought the price of wind within reach of that of fossil-fuel power, but the scale of wind will be limited by the grid’s ability to handle the inherent intermittency. Smarter wind turbine designs are helping with that as well. GE’s new wind turbine comes with battery backup. New algorithms, paired with weather-prediction software, determine when to store power in the battery and when to send it to the grid. As a result, wind farm operators can guarantee power output—but for just 15 minutes at a time. If wind power is ever to provide a large share of the total electricity supply, it may be necessary to have hours of storage—or else grid operators will have to maintain backup sources of power, such as natural-gas power plants.

See here for more on battery storage and wind power

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13 Responses to “New Wind Turbines Compete Head on with Cheapest Fossil Fuel”

  1. omnologos Says:

    As a result, wind farm operators can guarantee power output—but for just 15 minutes at a time. If wind power is ever to provide a large share of the total electricity supply, it may be necessary to have hours of storage—or else grid operators will have to maintain backup sources of power, such as natural-gas power plants

    ‘Nuff said

    • ahaveland Says:

      omnostultus squeaks again…
      Anything that can help not to burn fossil fuels is a positive thing, even if gas backup is required – the savings are still significant.

      • omnologos Says:

        Which part of “large” don’t you understand

        • ahaveland Says:

          I understand large perfectly well, thanks.

          Wind will become large because it is cheaper and energy storage can be solved in many ways, whether batteries, hydro pump storage using lakes or disused mines, compressed air, electrolysis of water, hydrocarbon synthesis, molten salt etc. all of which are cheaper and safer than drilling in mile-deep oceans, strip-mining tarsands or raping the arctic to buy a couple of years of procrastination.

          Sun is always shining somewhere and wind is always blowing somewhere. With enough turbines, intelligent HVDC distribution, and better efficiency, storage requirements need not be so large.

          With enough will, the entire energy infrastructure could be upgraded to replace fossil fuels forever, as one day it will surely have to be.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Denmark and 5 US states get 15-22% of electricity from wind but it’ll be quite some time before the US, as a whole, gets to that point, if ever.

      I would like to see pairings of solar thermal and wind farms in suitable places as excess from the wind farms could be stored in the molten salt.

      • ahaveland Says:

        Money is the Republicans’ God, and master over their ideology.

        The same greed that sold out American manufacturing to China for short-term profit before bankrupting the economy and exporting their pollution, is the same greed that may just save the planet, once the penny drops, that there is money to be made and saved in renewables, even discounting the health and life benefits, though I’m probably projecting.

        The Republican brain doesn’t understand common-sense unless it exists on a balance sheet.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      remember this is Technology Review. a reliable source, but not known for cutting edge analysis.
      In actual practice, so far, renewable energy has reached penetrations that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago without significant storage. There is good evidence from Germany, Iowa, and elsewhere, that the need for storage is overstated, and that, in any case, back up generation has been a part of the grid for many decades, and is certainly not an insurmountable challenge.

    • Oh Maurizio, being the champion of thorough research you are, you did click the link right at the end of the post didn’t you? Oh, you didn’t? Shame, because if you had you may not have felt the need to make your ’nuff said’ response and you wouldn’t appear an ignorant fool.

  2. Bruce Miller Says:

    Wind “Borrow Forward”
    America? Wind? Can investors ‘borrow forward” on the energy of the wind? develop an algorithm for the cost of Wind Turbines and equate the Energy produced then “borrow Forward” on it being there? Wind Turbines wear out but the wind that powers them is a commodity and should be financed in similar fashion, save for one difference, Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal, Geothermal, Biological, renewable Energy forces are renewable = perpetual = eternal, and a much safer basis even for the U.S. Dollar than oil or “Faith”?

  3. [...] Competition + mass production + experience + new technology = Wind turbines competing head on with gas turbines. And don't believe for a moment that they won't continue to improve, or that the cost…  [...]

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