Wind turbine manufacturers are turning away from the industry-standard gearboxes and generators in a bid to boost the reliability and reduce the cost of wind power.
Siemens has begun selling a three-megawatt turbine using a so-called direct-drive system that replaces the conventional high-speed generator with a low-speed generator that eliminates the need for a gearbox. And last month, General Electric announced an investment of 340 million euros in manufacturing facilities to build its own four-megawatt direct-drive turbines for offshore wind farms.
Most observers say the industry’s shift to direct-drive is a response to highly publicized gearbox failures. But Henrik Stiesdal, chief technology officer of Siemens’s wind power unit, says that gearbox problems are overblown. He says Siemens is adopting direct-drive as a means of generating more energy at lower cost. “Turbines can be made more competitive through direct-drive,” says Stiesdal.
Siemens’s plans hinge on a new design that reduces the weight of the system’s generator. In conventional wind turbines, the gearbox increases the speed of the wind-driven rotor several hundred fold, which radically reduces the size of the generator required. Direct-drive generators operate at the same speed as the turbine’s blades and must therefore be much bigger–over four meters in diameter for Siemens’s three-megawatt turbine. Yet Siemens claims that the turbine’s entire nacelle weighs just 73 metric tons–12 tons less than that on its less powerful, gear-driven 2.3-megawatt turbines.
Much of the weight reduction comes from the use of permanent magnets in the generators’ rotor–a trick that GE is also using. Conventional turbine generators use electromagnets–copper coils fed with electricity from the generator itself. Henk Polinder, an expert in permanent-magnet generators at Holland’s Delft University of Technology, says that a 15-millimeter-thick segment of permanent magnets can generate the same magnetic field as a 10- to 15-centimeter section of copper coils.
Stiesdal says Siemens reduced weight further by inverting its generator’s design. Rather than a steel rotor covered with permanent magnets spinning inside a stationary doughnut-shaped stator (the design GE is using in its four-megawatt direct-drive turbine) Siemens’s rotor is a steel cylinder with permanent magnets on the inside, and this rotor spins around a column-like stator.