Turbines will get cheaper as they get bigger — study

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2016

A shift toward taller, larger and higher-capacity wind turbines will continue to drive down costs for wind power in the United States and sharpen the renewable energy resource’s competitive edge, according to new research published in the journal Nature Energy.

The findings, based on a survey of 163 global wind energy experts, found that the upward scaling of both land- and ocean-based turbines will continue for the foreseeable future, and that the deployment of larger wind turbines will help make wind energy economically competitive with fossil fuels in some regions.

“The most important point here is that while wind is a relatively mature technology, it’s not all the way there yet,” said Ryan Wiser, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Electricity Markets and Policy Group. “There’s enough cost reduction still to be squeezed out of the system, and enough technology advancements to yield those costs reductions over the next 15 to 20 years.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, the cost of wind power in the United States has declined 66 percent since 2010 — a trend attributed to falling capital expenses, technological advances, improvements in wind farm siting and operation, and the build-out of a robust U.S. manufacturing base.

But even with those improvements, the industry has yet to reach a cost nadir, as experts predict an additional 35 to 41 percent reduction in the leveled cost of wind energy by 2050, based on a 2014 baseline. A sizable portion of those cost reductions will come through the deployment of larger turbines, according to the study.

“The story of wind power is a story of machine size,” the researchers said, with modern land-based wind turbines featuring tower hub heights of greater than 80 meters (262 feet) and rotor diameters exceeding 100 meters. Such scaling, combined with other innovations, has resulted in a twentyfold increase in average turbine generation capacity, from 100 kilowatts in the 1980s to 2 megawatts today.

Turbine size and design will continue to vary by market and project site, the authors said. For land-based turbines, experts forecast continued “evolutionary” growth in average turbine size over the next 15 years. By contrast, the offshore market, which is still in its infancy in the United States, could witness “revolutionary” scaling as turbine heights and rotor diameters soar to more than 125 meters and 190 meters, respectively.

While the survey revealed “significant uncertainty in future cost expectations,” it also pointed to “a sizeable opportunity space for cost reductions.” Such findings bolster the researchers’ conclusion that the U.S. wind energy sector will continue to see robust growth through 2050.

In addition to LBNL, contributors to the analysis include the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts and participants in the International Energy Agency’s Wind Technology Collaboration Programme.