Wind Turbines: Research

The year 2030 is an important date for wind energy—the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and others are pushing for 20% of the electricity in the U.S. to be produced by wind by 2030. Going from 1.26% to 20% is a big jump, and the DOE is relying on their new windmill to help them reach the target.

The windmill, nicknamed “DOE 1.5”, because it can produce 1.5-megwatts of electricity (enough to power about 450 homes), was recently installed just outside of Boulder, Colorado, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The commercially available windmill isn’t the biggest on record, but it can hold its own! Scientists at the lab will use DOE 1.5 in all kinds of research related to increasing the performance and lowering the cost of wind turbines.

Here are a couple of areas that scientists are planning to explore,

Blades: Long blades enable a wind turbine to capture more energy than short blades, but there is a trade-off—longer blades are heavier and so they are more likely to deform. The key to making more efficient blades is to optimize length, strength, and stiffness, while minimizing weight. One way to do this is to make the blade from more than one material. For example, by sandwiching a lightweight material between two heavier, stiffer sheets, kind of like an Oreo cookie. New materials and manufacturing methods are making it possible for scientists to create new types of blades, and DOE 1.5 will be a good testing site for them.

Trucks capable of transporting wind turbine blades

Trucks capable of transporting wind turbine blades are some of the largest and heaviest vehicles driving on the nation's roadways. Delivery routes must be carefully planned and approved to avoid urban rush hours, narrow lanes, sharp curves and weak bridges.
Credit: Jim Green / NREL

Controls: More wind is always better, right? Well, not all of the time. Imagine these lightweight blades in the middle of a violent windstorm. If there is no way to slow the blades down, they will keep going faster and faster until, well, take a look at this youtube video to find out happens.

In order to keep the blades from flying out of control and windmills from being destroyed in high winds, they need to have some kind of breaking system.

The flip side of this is also true. Windmills operate best under certain conditions that are dictated by their design. But, wind speeds are constantly changing. In order to get high efficiency out of a windmill, it needs to be able to work well across a range of wind speeds. Newer windmills are able to adjust the tilt of the blades and other features to control the rotation speed, but there is a lot of room for improvement in this area.

DOE 1.5 is primarily for research, so it will have lots of instruments built in to measure power output, stress on the blades, and other indicators of its performance. The turbine will also power some of the facilities on site and any extra power will feed into the local grid. This installation is an exciting sign of the potential of wind turbines to play a much larger part in energy production in the US. There is a lot to learn about capturing energy from the wind, and DOE 1.5 is sure to keep scientists busy for quite a while!

Wind Turbine

Blue skies and calm conditions contributed to a smooth installation of DOE 1.5, a General Electric 1.5 MW wind turbine at the National Wind Technology Center.
Credit: Pat Corkery / NREL

The DOE 1.5 at sunset

The DOE 1.5 at sunset. The wind turbine was obtained from GE.
Credit: Susan Hinnen / NREL


Mark Handschy, senior advisor to DOE Under Secretary Kristina Johnson and Megan McClure, program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program, cut the commissioning ribbon to celebrate the installation of the DOE 1.5-MW turbine installed at NREL's National Wind Technology Center (NWTC).
Credit: Joe Peollot / NREL

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