Wind is essential for our zero emissions future because it is a clean fuel energy source, is cost-effective, and can be built on existing farms or land or offshore. Oh, yeah — it’s renewable and infinite, too.
When humans moved from a nomadic to agricultural existence, few asked, “Why is wind important?” That’s because early farmers knew that windmills could pump water from streams and tributaries to irrigate their crops. They already understood that wind was an important element of their renewable energy toolkits.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and wind has risen to the top of the renewable energy mix. Vestas, the Danish wind turbine company, has developed a new offshore wind turbine designed specifically for use in typhoon-prone areas. The company’s V236-15.0 MW will produce 15 megawatts of electricity — the highest output of any offshore wind turbine in the world. The next closest is the GE Haliade X-13, which will be installed in the UK’s Dogger Bank offshore wind project in the North Sea.
In the US, the Biden administration announced this month a plan to expand the use of offshore wind power along the US East Coast, with the goal to tap this substantial new source of renewable energy. The plan sets a goal of deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines in coastal waters nationwide by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes. To help meet that target, the administration said it would accelerate permitting of projects off the Atlantic Coast and prepare to open up waters near New York and New Jersey for development. The endeavor contains $3 billion in federal loan guarantees for offshore wind projects and invest in upgrading the nation’s ports to support wind construction.
So, what’s this zero emissions technology all about? And why has wind renewable energy been controversial until now?
How Does a Wind Turbine Work?
Modern wind power looks a lot different than the gentle windmills of Don Quixote lore. Today’s wind is harvested by land-based or offshore wind farms that are mainly comprised of wind turbines. Wind turbines are mounted on a tower at 100 feet (30 meters) or more aboveground; that height is necessary to take advantage of faster and less turbulent wind. Turbines catch the wind’s energy with their propeller-like blades. Usually, 2 or 3 blades are mounted on a shaft to form a rotor.
Think of how an airplane wing works, suggests NREL, as a wind turbine is similar. Winds blow, and a pocket of low-pressure air forms on the downwind side of the blade. The low-pressure air pocket then pulls the blade toward it, causing the rotor to turn. This is called lift. The force of the lift is actually much stronger than the wind’s force against the front side of the blade, which is called drag. The combination of lift and drag causes the rotor to spin like a propeller, and the turning shaft spins a generator to make electricity.
What parts make up a wind turbine?
- the towers, brimming with technology
- the supporting infrastructure
- blades angled by digital sensors that measure the wind’s velocity and direction then catch the energy of the wind spinning the rotor
- a gearbox that accelerates that rotation, which is increasing efficiency
- a generator within comprised of magnets to create electricity and then travel down the tower off to the grid
Innovations in gearboxes and generators have created more power with less wind, providing improved zero emissions efficiency and a decrease in costs over previous years.
Cost of Turbines: Dropping, Dropping, Dropping…
Economies of scale are definitely a significant factor in decreasing prices for turbines. Vestas wind systems is one of the oldest turbine companies in the world — it was founded in 1945. Its turbines have dropped significantly in cost since 2005.
New rotor blades are increasing in surface areas and length, and that elevates wind capacity factors and increases efficiency by being able to generate electricity in low wind speeds. These blades can face up to 200 tons of air pressure. Compensating for that requires composite materials like state-of-the-art carbon fiber that are strong enough to handle that kind of pressure.
Innovation, power engineering, and autonomous robotic repairs are also helping to decrease the cost of operating and installing wind turbines.
A US Department of Energy-backed initiative has started work on a roadmap to outline the benefits of the local supply chain in accelerating offshore wind development in the country. Analysis of a supply chain database will pinpoint resources as well as gaps of current suppliers in order to take advantage of existing strengths and improve deficits.
No Wind Turbines in My Neighborhood! The Wind Zero Emissions Controversy
Members of the wind opposition group, Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott, which sprung up in 2018, are fighting to save their beach from an underground power line connecting to New York Governor Cuomo’s first off-shore wind farm. The group argues the power cable project will “forever alter… one of the most popular, heavily used, and photographed public beaches in the Hamptons.”
Great River Energy, a rural electric cooperative based in Minnesota, planned to sell its Coal Creek Station to build huge wind farms — a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts — to take advantage of an existing transmission line. Two counties next to Coal Creek Station moved quickly to keep wind companies from getting access to the line in an effort to save the area’s coal plant, and the local wind effort was abandoned.
The ill-fated 468-megawatt Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts in the US is one example of an ambitious early-on offshore wind project gone bad, in part due to objections from one particularly influential onshore property owner whose family has a large stake in the US fossil energy industry.
Yet regional wind advocates continued on, and Massachusetts celebrated the first world class commercial offshore wind farm in the US, the Vineyard Wind project, which weighed in at 800 megawatts. The Vineyard Wind energy project will contribute to the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of generating 30 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2030. Located approximately 12 nautical miles offshore Martha’s Vineyard and 12 nautical miles offshore Nantucket, Vineyard Wind is expected to create 3,600 jobs and provide enough power for 400,000 homes and businesses.
Wind Turbines Today: Case Studies
Vestas signed an agreement with Omega Energia for the 212 MW Assuruá 4 project, located in the cities of Gentio do Ouro and Xique-Xique, in Bahia. The order includes 47 V150-4.2 MW wind turbines delivered in 4.5 MW Power Optimized Mode as well as a 10-year Active Output Management 5000 (AOM 5000) service contract, optimizing the energy production for the lifetime of the project. With this project, Vestas’ surpasses the milestone of 5 GW of order intake in Brazil for the V150 wind turbines in 4.2 MW standard rating and 4.5 MW Power Optimized Modes. The milestone is reached a year and a half after the turbine variant started being produced in the country. The wind turbines are locally produced under the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) FINAME rules, creating jobs, expanding Brazil’s wind energy industry, and supporting the government’s initiative to promote renewables and a more sustainable energy mix.
GE Renewable Energy will supply 42 wind turbines, totaling 110 megawatts, to CleanMax for an onshore wind facility part of a solar-wind hybrid project. CleanMax is developing the zero emissions project in the western state of Gujarat, India.
Another GE wind turbine project is in the Netherlands, and the machine’s size and advance sales have taken the wind industry by pleasant surprise. With its sensors gathering data on wind speeds, electricity output, and stresses on its components, the enormous test model foreshadows a new series of giant offshore wind turbines that, when assembled in arrays, have the potential to power whole cities.
Wind power is a marvel — we can use it to benefit the climate, the environment, the economy, and social unity.