The newest wind turbine standing at Rocky Flats in Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy’s proving ground for wind power technologies, looks much like any other apparatus for capturing energy from wind: a boxy turbine sits atop a steel tower that sprouts two propeller blades stretching a combined 40 meters-almost half the length of a football field. Wind rushes by, blades rotate, and electricity flows. But there’s a key difference. This prototype has flexible, hinged blades; in strong winds, they bend back slightly while spinning. The bending is barely perceptible to a casual observer, but it’s a radical departure from how existing wind turbines work-and it just may change the fate of wind power.
Indeed, the success of the prototype at Rocky Flats comes at a crucial moment in the evolution of wind power. Wind-driven generators are still a niche technology-producing less than one percent of U.S. electricity. But last year, 1,700 megawatts’ worth of new wind capacity was installed in the United States-enough to power 500,000 houses-nearly doubling the nation’s wind power capacity. And more is on the way. Manufacturers have reduced the cost of heavy-duty wind turbines fourfold since 1980, and these gargantuan machines are now reliable and efficient enough to be built offshore. An 80-turbine, $245 million wind farm under construction off the Danish coast will be the world’s largest, and developers are beginning to colonize German, Dutch and British waters, too. In North America, speculators envision massive offshore wind farms near British Columbia and Nantucket, MA.
But there is still a black cloud hovering over this seemingly sunny scenario. Wind turbines remain expensive to build-often prohibitively so. On average, it costs about $1 million per megawatt to construct a wind turbine farm, compared to about $600,000 per megawatt for a conventional gas-fired power plant; in the economic calculations of power companies, the fact that wind is free doesn’t close this gap. In short, the price of building wind power must come down if it’s ever to be more than a niche technology.
And that’s where the prototype at Rocky Flats comes in. The flexibility in its blades will enable the turbine to be 40 percent lighter than today’s industry standard but just as capable of surviving destructive storms. And that lighter weight could mean machines that are 20 to 25 percent cheaper than today’s large turbines.
Earlier efforts at lighter designs were universal failures-disabled or destroyed, some within weeks, by the wind itself. Given these failures, wind experts are understandably cautious about the latest shot at a lightweight design. But most agree that lightweight wind turbines, if they work, will change the economic equation. “The question would become, How do you get the transmission capacity built fast enough to keep up with growth,’” says Ward Marshall, a wind power developer at Columbus, OH-based American Electric Power who is on the board of directors of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. “You’d have plenty of folks willing to sign up.”
And, say experts, the Rocky Flats prototype-designed by Wind Turbine of Bellevue, WA-is the best hope in years for a lightweight design that will finally succeed. “I can say pretty unequivocally that this is a dramatic step in lightweight [wind turbine] technology,” says Bob Thresher, director of the National Wind Technology Center at Rocky Flats. “Nobody else has built a machine that flexible and made it work.”