New Wind Turbine Blades from Hi Tec Fabric

December 4, 2012


The latest round of ARPA-E grants was just announced and among the 66 cleantech projects that received funding was GE’s latest wind technology development: fabric wind turbine blades. When I first read this, I was imagining something that looked like sails, but the structure of the blade will remain pretty much the same except instead of fiberglass, a super-strong architectural fabric will be wrapped around the blade frame.

According to GE, this swap will allow for turbine blades that perform just as well, but can be made on site for a much lower cost — up to 40 percent less.

From an energy generation standpoint, the use of fabric, which is lighter than fiberglass, would allow for the production of much longer blades. Longer blades can capture even more of the wind’s energy.

The press release explains,”GE’s research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs which run the length of the blade and specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations. Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier and more labor and time-intensive to manufacture.”

General Electric:

· New manufacturing approach could reduce blade production costs by up to 40%

· Would make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies

· Will pave the way to longer blades that exceed 130 meters

NISKAYUNA, NY – November 28, 2012 – In a move that could put wind energy on equal economic footing with traditional fossil fuels, GE (NYSE: GE), Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (Virginia Tech), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), will begin work on a project that could fundamentally change the way wind blades are designed, manufactured and installed.

With most of the cost of electricity for wind tied up in the initial capital investments made in the wind turbines themselves, new technology advancements that reduce these costs could substantially lower the overall cost of wind energy.

“GE’s weaving an advanced wind blade that could be the fabric of our clean energy future,” said Wendy Lin, a GE Principal Engineer and leader on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) project. “The fabric we’re developing will be tough, flexible, and easier to assemble and maintain. It represents a clear path to making wind even more cost competitive with fossil fuels.”


It’s estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20% wind power in the U.S., wind blades would need to grow by 50% — a figure that would be virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints imposed by current technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable.

“Developing larger wind blades is the key to expanding wind energy into areas we wouldn’t think of today as suitable for harvesting wind power. Tapping into moderate wind speed markets, in places like the Midwest, will only help grow the industry in the years to come,” Lin went on to say.

The use of fabrics to reduce weight and provide a cost-effective cover dates back to the World War I era, when it was used on airplanes. Over the years fabric has proved to be rugged and reliable and GE has already begun using this spaceframe/tension fabric design in the construction of wind towers for better aesthetics, cost, and protection.


18 Responses to “New Wind Turbine Blades from Hi Tec Fabric”

  1. petersjazz Says:

    Great. But I think wind could be more decentralised. More development on how to make super cheep home wind systems. Swedish company EgenEl ( is trying out small wind turbines.

    • The huge down size of even larger blades is that more birds will be killed as a result. We already know that the blades move at a higher rate of speed at the tips than at the center and longer blades will increase the problem, aside from just being further out into the air space.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        “even more birds”?
        have you been paying much attention?

      • rayduray Says:

        Re: “The huge down size of even larger blades is that more birds will be killed as a result.”

        There seems to be quite a bit of disinformation injected into this discussion, primarily by malevolent publicists for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. They’ve made a complete mockery of the science.

        There have been many advances in the location of wind farms and in the slowing of the rate of rotation of wind turbines since the early days of the industry.

        Some insights are available here:

        As it turns out, vastly more birds are killed by their inability to “see” the windows of high rise buildings than by the rotors of wind machines.

        One particularly galling case comes to mind. For several years, at the site of the World Trade Center, two massively powerful beams of light have been illuminated as a memorial to the victims of 9/11. It turns out this is a major flyway and thousands of birds migrate through New York harbor at night during this season. And the lights have disoriented tens of thousands of migrating birds and killed them due to interactions with high rise glass. This is a needless and pointless assault on wildlife. We certainly should be remembering the dead of 9/11, but squandering money on vast artificial illumination schemes that result in totally unnecessary death to migrating birds hardly seems the way to go about it.

  2. […] TreeHugger:  The latest round of ARPA-E grants was just announced and among the 66 cleantech projects that received funding was GE’s latest wind technology development: fabric wind turbine bl…  […]

  3. rayduray Says:

    Oftentimes the devil is in the details on this sort of thing. Two immediate concerns I would have would be the increase in machine noise that can be expected with a fabric which one would assume would have some weird harmonic issues due to increased flexibility vis-a-vis fiberglass.

    A second issue would be the question of MTBF, or mean time before failure. How does this fabric compare to fiberglass? I’m guessing we’re looking at a shortened service life which would take the initial savings of 40% and reduce that to perhaps a negligible number at best over the lifetime of the generator.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      The last line says 20-yr life with no maintenance but I’m going to be cautiously optimistic about that claim.

      • rayduray Says:

        Re: “but I’m going to be cautiously optimistic about that claim.”

        By which you mean you expect the service life to exceed 20 years?

        • MorinMoss Says:

          No. That it just might get close to 20 yrs and require a small amount of maintenance.
          I’ve seen too much promising tech not live up to the claims and falling significantly short would hurt wind power even more.

  4. rayduray Says:

    Imagine I’m a gigantic corporation. Imagine I’m a parasite.

    I might be GE.

    I finally got the gist of this entire ugly story. GE just swindled the department of idiots in charge of energy for Obama out of $5.6 Million. For a project that will probably eventually save GE tens of millions on new wind generator erections.

    In the meantime, the NY Times reports that GE, one of the nation’s most profitable defense contractors, has managed to swindle the Federal Government out of taxes to the tune of billions of dollars.

    We are so doomed.

  5. anotheralionel Says:

    I wonder how they handle the stability of the structure with respect to aerodynamic loading and washout?

    • rayduray Says:

      Re: “I wonder how they handle the stability of the structure with respect to aerodynamic loading and washout?”

      That will no doubt require another $10 Million grant from the government to find out. (wink)

      I would predict that as the fabric wing goes through thousands of cycles with variable wind loading that fatigue is going to be a really serious issue with this sort of composite structure. These things tend to pull themselves apart even in the best of conditions, which the wind generators certainly will not be enduring out on the prairie or in the various windy locations such as the Columbia River Gorge where this is likely to be deployed.

      The fact that they think these complex fabrications can be nearly 200 feet long leads me to wonder at the immense stresses when the wings go from zero loading to fully stressed with hurricane force winds. The greatest threat to these structures I’d have to imagine is that these generators will be so tall that they will have to deal with surface effect creating variable loading every rotation of the mill. The difference between winds at 200 feet and 600 feet can be substantial. See:

  6. anotheralionel Says:

    My perspective comes from another life as a trained aircraft engineer (military, naval) where an understanding aerodynamics and structures were key components as well as system (hydraulics, pneumatics, engines etc. etc). Also a lifetime of studying the characteristics of various aircraft including those of WW2 vintage which often had fabric covered control surfaces which induced a ‘soggy’ feel into manoeuvre initiation.

    The substitution of metal covered control surfaces with high speed aircraft of the day, e.g. Spitfire, had some, at the time surprising results which included control reversal where an up-going aileron which should push the wing down had the opposite effect because the structure of the wing was not strong enough to prevent distortion which increased the angle of incidence thus increasing lift and raising the wing. With the reverse happening on the other side pilot confusion was assured.

    Some aspects discussed here: Aerodynamic flutter and here: Control reversal

    These issues formed a part of the difficulties in the early post war period when aircraft were nudging the transonic flight regime often with fatal results.

  7. anotheralionel Says:

    I am not sure why the first link appeared dead in the above as the tags used were all complete, try again:

    here: Aerodynamic flutter

  8. kokuaguy Says:

    I’m hoping some of the amazing folks in the climate crocks community will comment on this article I just came across.

    • rayduray Says:


      At first glance, this microalgae concept seems like a thousand of other lab bench curiosities.

      I’m reminded of the scale of the problem. Humanity is currently dumping about 29 gigatons of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. One large unit of this Frenchman’s microalgae converter is going to deal with one ton of CO2 per annum. This seems to be a preposterously tiny solution to a gargantuan problem.

      Algae to fuel experiments seem more likely to succeed.

      And what we’d be much better off concentrating academic effort on would be to sort out just how we can reverse the trend by which the oceans have apparently lost about 40% of phytoplankton production since 1950.

      This is a serious matter in that oceanic phytoplankton provide half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. We’re talking about the conversion of billions of tons of CO2 by natural processes in the carbon cycle being disrupted, apparently, by a 1 degree C. rise in ocean temperatures over the course of a century. Whatever the French biochemist comes up with seems a triviality in comparison.

  9. […] 2012/12/04: PSinclair: New Wind Turbine Blades from Hi Tec Fabric […]

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