Expert Voices

Technology Gains are Powering Wind Energy (Op-Ed)

wind turbines
Wind energy production increased by 16 percent in the United States from 2011 to 2012. (Image credit: S.R. Lee Photo Traveller | Shutterstock)

Brad Gammons is general manager of IBM's Global Energy and Utilities Industry, where he oversees strategy, sales execution, solution development, operations and marketing. Rolf Gibbels is an executive member of IBM's Global Energy and Utilities organization, leading global industry solutions and business development activities. He focuses on power generation, including renewables like wind, across all IBM brands. The authors contributed this article toLiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Last year, in the United States and overseas, the wind energy industry set new records, scored countless firsts and generally gained a surprising round of superlatives worldwide as it rose to provide 2.6 percent of global electricity production. A decade from now, that figure is on track to rise to 7.4 percent, according to a recent report by Navigant Research.

The wind industry has boomed over the last decade, growing more quickly than many energy optimists predicted. Today, a virtuous cycle is underway, seeded by public subsidies and investments; driven by the need for energy security and the goal to reduce emissions; and sustained by a familiar process where the scaling up of manufacturing capacity lowers per-unit costs, increases competitiveness with conventional fuels and drives further innovation.

But how does society ensure this progress is sustained and not fleeting?

Superlative year

Utility-scale wind turbines emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, but significant global investments and substantial growth in new capacity did not become prevalent until the beginning of the 21st century. Fast-forward a few more years, and energy advancements continued to evolve and incorporate emerging technology, such as the smart grid, which has allowed companies like IBM to use Big Data analytics to create more effective approaches to energy generation.

Even though the price of natural gas hit unprecedented lows last year in the United States, wind power topped the list of new generation sources that came online: 13.1 gigawatts (GW) of wind energy capacity went live, constituting 42 percent of all new energy capacity. When solar and other low-carbon sources are included, renewable energy made up the majority, 55 percent, of all new generation — a first.

Global wind energy capacity grew by a record amount, too, with 44.7 GW of wind energy capacity installed last year — increasing the total installed base by 19 percent to 282.4 GW. The United States won the international race for new installations but only beat China by a tiny margin. China, with 75.6 GW of accumulated capacity, holds the world's top spot for installed wind energy, with the United States in second place overall, with 60 GW. Collectively, however, the European Union still leads. That region has made up for a shortage of open land by focusing on offshore wind, building a total of 105.7 GW of wind capacity, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

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Record output

U.S. regions that host the largest amount of wind energy capacity are beginning to break records for the amount of wind power flowing into their grids. Texas, for example, is now home to 12.2 GW of wind capacity, more than twice that of No. 2 California. On a windy winter day this February, the Lone Star State's wind output peaked at 28 percent of all power flowing on its core grid. In Spain, levels like these have become the norm: In the final three months of 2012, wind provided more than one-quarter of the country's electricity, more than any other source.

Competing with fossil fuels

It's premature to declare wind as the lowest-cost power source available, but it's getting there. Texas' independent electricity system operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), recently reforecast the long-term costs of various power types — including coal, natural gas and wind — and predicted that the latter will beat out even currently cheap natural gas over the next 20 years.

In markets such as Australia, where carbon emissions are charged a nominal fee, wind has become the lowest-cost type of generation, bar none. A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis priced wind at $84 per megawatt-hour (MWh), a 28-percent edge over natural gas and 45 percent better than coal. In Brazil, analysts were wowed last December when bids came in at record lows. At $44 per MWh, the winning bids were 41 percent lower than from just two years earlier.

Technological gusts

What is driving wind's growth spurt? One of the reasons is better technology. From within the technologies, more reliable mechanical systems pump out more energy more efficiently, while on the outside, longer blades and taller towers, as well as smarter software control systems, are delivering steady performance gains on many fronts at once.

Taller towers

Anyone who has flown a kite knows that the higher up you go, the windier it gets. Accordingly, wind-turbine designers have been reaching higher with each new generation of turbines. In the United States, design advances — such as switching to concrete from steel— have made it possible to erect towers as tall as 100 meters (328 feet), or nearly 30 stories from base to nacelle (the part of the turbine that houses all the generating components). The benefit of making turbines taller varies by region, but as a rule of thumb, the stretch can boost output by up to 14 percent compared with one of today's 80-meter (263 foot) towers.

Getting wider

As the towers get taller, the turbine blades get longer. This helps to create a larger net with which to catch more wind. By turning to lighter, stronger materials, such as carbon fiber or advanced fabrics (the same composite materials used for next-generation aircraft), turbine makers are pushing limits, building longer blades that begin spinning, and generating power, at lower speeds than earlier generations.

For example, by stepping up to a diameter of 120 m (394 feet), from 103 m (338 feet), a recent turbine design can deliver up to a 15 percent boost in output. Longer blades are in the works: To harvest powerful offshore gusts, an industry consortium in Europe is collaborating on mega-turbines that will stand 250 m (820 feet) tall, topped by 80-meter-long (263 feet) blades, with a total diameter of more than 160 m (525 feet).

Getting smarter

Without smarter control software, bigger turbines aren't necessarily better. Today's turbines are loaded with sensors and precision controllers, which constantly tweak the blade assembly's position in order to optimize the use of the wind energy and provide information to advance operations. The orientation of each turbine blade, in fact, is continuously adjusted as well. Intelligent controllers expose more of the blade to capture the most wind. But if gusts grow dangerously strong, the blades can be rotated to minimize their exposure and the risk of damage.

A sustained force

While hardware will continue to evolve, IBM believes advanced analytics software will play the most critical role in sustaining wind's tenuous, but rapid growth, and in solidifying its position as a manageable, reliable source of alternative energy. In China, for example, planners are discovering that extremely accurate wind forecasts can increase the power dispatch by 10 percent (meaning that more energy can be sold and fed into the grid) by having a better grip on the wind's intermittent nature and without wasting energy through curtailment, which is when wind farms have to suspend operation due to an oversupply of other forms of energy, like hydropower.

IBM recently established a contract with Jibei Electricity Power Co. Ltd. (SG-JBEPC), a company affiliated with China's government-operated grid operator. The company is one recent wind developer to turn to high-performance computing and Big Data to generate accurate and precise wind forecasts. Using analytics technology and IBM's "Hybrid Renewable Energy Forecaster" (HyRef), a weather model customized to the needs of the company's wind and solar plants is able to predict wind strength, speed and direction, up to a month in advance, and short-term power forecasting (zero to four hours at 15-minute time intervals) specific to various geographies and topographies.

The forecasts are helping SG-JBEPC to predict the power output at resolutions down to a single wind turbine. Therefore, forecast errors could be less than 8 percent (significantly lower than the 25 percent required by the China National Energy Administration), enabling SG-JBEPC to increase wind and solar integration by 10 percent. The effort is part of a broader goal, set out by the Chinese government, to sharply cut China's use of fossil fuels and related air and water pollution.

Advanced analytics will drive wind power from being a curious backup option to a desirable and dependable alternative energy front-runner — both in established markets and in developing nations. China and other countries are recognizing that by applying these powerful software capabilities, society can ensure wind power — and likely other renewable power sources — move from a long shot to a towering success.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.