One of the first R&D grants to a renewable-energy developer from the economic-stimulus funds approved by Congress this spring could have a dramatic impact on the design of wind turbines. The $16 million loan guarantee offered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to Berkeley, CA-based Nordic Windpower will accelerate commercialization of the company’s Swedish-designed, two-bladed wind turbines, marking the first utility-scale alternative to the industry’s dominant three-bladed design in over a decade.
In recent years, wind-energy entrepreneurs have already been pushing beyond the standard design. Blue H Technologies of the Netherlands and Norway’s SWAY, for example, are testing unorthodox turbine designs tailored for placement on offshore platforms anchored in deep water far offshore. Blue H is testing two-bladed turbines akin to Nordic’s, while SWAY has a three-bladed design that faces the rotor downwind, bucking the industry’s conventional into-the-wind orientation.
The attraction for all three companies to pursue innovative approaches is essentially the same: their designs could be substantially lighter than today’s turbines, and could thus produce energy at much lower cost. That remains an important goal for wind power, which, though presently the cheapest form of renewable-power generation, remains dependent on government incentives.
What sets Nordic apart from others rethinking wind-turbine architecture is that its prototypes have been operating successfully for over a decade. Backed by Goldman Sachs since 2007 and now by the DOE, the company plans to begin shipping commercial models later this year. Nordic’s experience should help overcome skepticism that such alternative designs can be robust in megawatt-scale machines–skepticism that was reinforced by earlier, failed experiments with two-bladed and downwind turbines.
Nordic Windpower CEO Tom Carbone, who formerly led the U.S. operations of Danish wind-turbine giant Vestas, says that Nordic’s key technology is the “teetered hub” that the two blades use. Nordic’s hub provides a flexible link between the rotor and the generator driveshaft, enabling the blades to move in and out of the plane of rotation in response to gusts or turbulence. Carbone says Nordic’s lightweight design can deliver a whopping 20-25 percent cost reduction relative to three-bladed turbines.
Bumpers constrain the hinging to just two degrees in either direction, but that is enough to shed unwanted forces that would otherwise strain the turbine’s gearbox. Shedding unwanted forces also means that the entire structure, from tower to generator to blades, can be built lighter and cheaper. “You’re reducing the amount of material normally used to strengthen the structure against those loads,” says Carbone.