As U.S. interest in wind energy grows, more research is being placed on how to make the structures operate more efficiently and require less time-consuming and costly maintenance. This has brought scientists to a new era for wind energy development that is testing super-sized turbines that can generate more electricity on the cheap. 

According to Earth Techling, the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) is experimenting with giant turbines at its research center outside of Boulder, Colorado, where scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are helping to create a sustainable roadmap by testing the latest equipment and technologies developed for the green energy sector. The ultimate goal of the center is to prepare new technologies for more widespread development among manufacturers. 

“The addition of modern megawatt-scale wind turbines has been critical in the development of our center,” NWTC Director Fort Felker said. “It has changed the way the wind industry thinks about NREL in the sense that the work we are doing is relevant, impactful, and immediately beneficial to them. The continued partnership efforts on these turbines demonstrate how our industry partners value the contribution we provide and the important role we can play in testing new technologies.”

Doing more with less
The latest research endeavor can be traced back to an agreement signed in 2011 between French wind power company Alstrom and the NREL. The two groups worked together to test the ECO 100 wind turbine, and have since progressed tremendously by updating the design to include a new blade layout. The simple addition resulted in the creation of the ECO 110 turbine that features a massive 110-meter rotor diameter, effectively making it the largest turbine on site, according to the news source.

“This is the largest machine we’ve ever had our hands on,” NREL test engineer and project manager Jeroen van Dam said. “It’s always an exciting opportunity to get to apply our testing methods to a larger or newer concept and continue to validate those methods.”

According to the news source, the new blades were designed to churn out as much power as possible without needing high wind speeds, as most current wind turbines do. However, while the longer blades mean more power with every gust of wind, the added weight is also expected to take a toll on structural loads when wind speeds rise. This has led to extensive testing and research so that it can more quickly receive the certification to enter U.S. turbine markets.

“There is great potential for developing medium wind speed resources throughout the United States and Canada,” said Albert Fisas, director of innovation for Alstom’s North American Wind business. “With this upgrade complete, Alstom and NREL will launch a commissioning and testing program to certify the performance of the new rotor configuration for use in North America and worldwide.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, 8,385 megawatts of wind power capacity was installed in the fourth quarter of 2012, bringing the total for the year to 13,131 megawatts, demonstrating the immense growth of the wind energy sector.