Wind Energy to Benefit from High Tech, Higher Turbines
September 14, 2016
A scaled-down gale blows over a flat plate set inside the tabletop wind tunnel. Despite the low lighting and hazy Plexiglas view portals, we can clearly see the frenzied fluttering of streamer ribbons, called telltales, in the field of little wind vanes that carpets the exposed test surface inside.
At first, each unruly telltale flies every which way, clear evidence of unsteady air flows gusting within. “OK, that’s off,” the researcher says.
“Here’s on…” Almost like a sorcerer’s spell, an otherworldly, blue-violet halo emerges at the front of the plate and hovers corona-like, casting peculiar purple shadows onto the walls. The telltales meanwhile become suddenly and strangely obedient, instantly swinging round in near unison, aligned by an insistent new wind.
“Off,” she says. The ribbons flap arbitrarily as the eerie electric flame fades. “On.” More purple haze and parallel ribbons.
“Off, off…and on.” The odd glow, curious order, and incessant roar of the fan drop away. By the time the lights come on, a whiff of ozone hangs in the air and everyone in the room is grinning uncontrollably.
And for good reason. We just watched moving air being controlled by plasma, the lesser-known, fourth state of matter which also exists in the blistering core of our sun. And while such lab demonstrations are both uncanny and awe-inspiring, these so-called plasma actuators could produce far more impressive benefits in the real world, especially for the aviation and wind power industries, and maybe even the trucking business.
On airplane wings, for example, tiny plasma actuators could help planes fly more safely, more efficiently, and with greater stability and control. They can speed, slow or divert air flows in ways that can cut drag, fuel use, and CO2 emissions by as much as 25%, researchers estimate. Some experts even think that these devices might someday replace conventional flight control surfaces such as flaps and ailerons. Imagine witnessing the ghoulish purple glow of the lab demo from the window seat of a transcontinental flight.
More immediately, aerodynamicists are looking to place the same technology on the huge, vulnerable, and costly blades of wind turbines to improve their efficiency, extend their lifetimes, and even help them more effectively cope with gusting winds.
Technology advancements are expected to continue to drive down the cost of wind energy, according to a survey of the world’s foremost wind power experts led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). Experts anticipate cost reductions of 24%-30% by 2030 and 35%-41% by 2050, under a median or ‘best guess’ scenario, driven by bigger and more efficient turbines, lower capital and operating costs, and other advancements
The findings are described in an article in the journal Nature Energy. The study was led by Ryan Wiser, a senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, and included contributions from other staff from Berkeley Lab, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Massachusetts, and participants in the International Energy Agency Wind (IEA) Wind Technology Collaboration Programme Task 26.
The study summarizes a global survey of 163 wind energy experts to gain insight into the possible magnitude of future wind energy cost reductions, the sources of those reductions, and the enabling conditions needed to realize continued innovation and lower costs. Three wind applications were covered: onshore (land-based) wind, fixed-bottom offshore wind, and floating offshore wind.
“Wind energy costs have declined dramatically in recent years, leading to substantial growth in deployment. But we wanted to know about the prospects for continued technology advancements and cost reductions,” said Wiser. “Our ‘expert elicitation’ survey complements other methods for evaluating cost-reduction potential by shedding light on how cost reductions might be realized and by clarifying the important uncertainties in these estimates.”
What’s interesting about the graph is that, for onshore wind, these are prices that are already very much available. Academic experts not always current with what aggressive capitalists are up to.
Most of the anticipated technological improvements are less futuristic, and easier to foresee – for instance, larger, more efficient turbines.
In a nugget of very good news for the renewable energy sector, a survey of 163 wind energy experts has found that in the coming decades, the cost of electricity generated by wind should plunge, by between 24 and 30 percent by the year 2030, and even further by the middle of the century.
One key reason? New wind projects are about to get even more massive, in both the offshore and onshore sectors. As turbines get taller and access stronger winds, and as rotors increase in diameter, it becomes possible to generate ever more electricity from a single turbine.
“Our experts clearly anticipate a significant potential for further cost reductions, both onshore and offshore,” said Ryan Wiser of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who conducted the study with colleagues from several other institutions, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an International Energy Agency task force on wind energy.