After Smart Phones, Smart Wind Turbines
Same Wind Conditions, More Productive TurbinesWind and solar power are the two main pillars of our clean energy future (combined with hydro where it makes sense, deep rock geothermal when costs can be brought down, wave power, maybe someday thorium, some biomass/biofuels where they make sense, etc). If we take a closer look at wind power, huge progress has been made in past decades, and while some advances are obvious - wind turbines have been getting bigger all the time - some improvements are making a difference in more subtle ways.
Your Phone Isn't the Only Thing Getting SmarterA lot of progress has been made in making a wind turbine of a given size more productive, from better positioning individual wind turbines and whole wind farms thanks to better computer models to improving the efficiency of various components, from rotor blades to all of the mechanical parts inside the nacelle, all of this connected to sensors and clever software to optimize operations under a wider range of conditions. Improving reliability is also a big deal, as it lower overall operation costs and allows a turbine to capture more wind because of less maintenance downtime. All of this together makes enough difference that even turbines that have a capacity rating that is lower than older models actually end up producing more kWhs per year:
GE’s new 2.5-120 wind turbine, announced last week, is a case in point. Its maximum power output, 2.5 megawatts, is lower than that of the 2.85 megawatt turbine it’s superseding. But over the course of a year it can generate 15 percent more kilowatt hours. Arrays of sensors paired with better algorithms for operating and monitoring the turbine let it keep spinning when earlier generations of wind turbines would have had to shut down.(source)
This, plus bigger turbines and economies of scale, have contributed to more than halving the average cost of wind power during the past two decades. From 15 cents/kWh in 1991 to about 6.5 cents/kWh today, a price that is competitive with new natural gas power plants.
All of these improvements are making the future of wind power look bright, at least as long as we keep improving our power grids to handle more intermittency (something that more plug-in vehicles can help with, since they can be charged off-peak when the wind is blowing):
Indeed, last month the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said that the latest data on wind turbine performance and costs suggests that wind power is likely to be more cost-effective than natural gas over the next 20 years, and it could account for the majority of new generating capacity added over that that time in Texas. Before the council factored in the latest data, it had expected all new generation to come from natural-gas plants.(source)