U.S. could get 50% of its power from wind, with advances

Source: By John Fialka, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2019

A group of wind power experts from 15 countries released plans yesterday for their “grand vision” of the future resource. They posed a number of scientific, technological and economic challenges that, if met, could harvest enough wind to produce 50% of the Earth’s electricity needs by 2050.

Currently wind power amounts to 5% of the global electricity supply. At least eight countries have generated 10% of their electricity needs from wind turbines, and in two of them, Portugal and Denmark, it has reached 30%. At moments, wind generation in Denmark has reached 100% of its electricity demand, the scientists pointed out in a paper published in the journal Science.

This year in the United States, which has over 57,000 operating wind turbines, a little over 7% of its electricity comes from wind. It is produced in 40 states and is growing rapidly in some of them, led by Texas, Iowa, California, Oklahoma and Illinois.

In a press release from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), one of the study’s 29 co-authors, Paul Veers, an NREL research fellow, said that “wind energy has the potential to be a primary source of low-cost energy for the world, but we won’t get there on a business-as-usual trajectory.”

It will take a global collection of researchers to develop bigger, more efficient and lower-cost wind turbines, he noted, adding that there is “much more to be done.”

The first of three future “challenges” outlined by the authors of the study is to get a better grasp of where the wind is and how it operates at the heights where turbines can reach it. Large numbers of turbines in a wind farm and irregularly shaped lands can cause variations in wind currents, but there are “major gaps in our knowledge of wind flows” that escape the view of simplified physical models, according to NREL.

Then there is the second challenge of building higher towers and longer turbine blades to reach higher, more powerful winds. Currently towers built to hold wind turbines can cost over $1 million. Some towers reach heights of 328 feet, and their blades extend to 262 feet.

“As machines continue getting larger, new materials and manufacturing processes are needed to address the emerging issues of scalability, transportation and recycling,” said the NREL summary of the study. “Many simplifying assumptions on which previous generations of wind were designed no longer apply.”

The summary noted that more wind power will require better controls for storing wind-generated electricity and matching it to the frequencies and voltages needed for electric grids. Then there are safety and cost control considerations for towers that can reach higher, more powerful winds.

More multidisciplinary research will be needed to provide “integrated solutions necessary for advancing the entire system — from the turbine to the plant to the overall electrical grid,” explained Johney Green, an NREL associate laboratory director.

After an initial meeting at NREL in Golden, Colo., in the fall of 2017, 70 wind energy experts staged a series of initial meetings and identified needed innovations in manufacturing, turbine technology and design, and structural modifications for both on- and offshore wind farms that could lead to the “grand vision” of a more substantial global wind-generated electricity supply by the turn of the century.