Greentech Lead U.S: GE, in association with Virginia
Polytechnic Institute & State University (Virginia Tech), and the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory (NREL), will begin work on a project that could fundamentally
change the way wind blades are designed, manufactured and installed.
With most of the cost of electricity for wind tied up in
the initial capital investments made in the wind turbines themselves, new
technology advancements that reduce these costs could substantially lower the
overall cost of wind energy, according to GE. The new blade design could reduce
blade costs 25-40 percent, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels
without government subsidies.
“GE’s weaving an advanced wind blade that could be the
fabric of our clean energy future,” said Wendy Lin, a GE principal engineer and
leader on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E)
project. “The fabric we’re developing will be tough, flexible, and easier to
assemble and maintain. It represents a clear path to making wind even more cost
competitive with fossil fuels.”
GE’s research will focus on the use of architectural
fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a
fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs which run the length of the
blade and specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations.
Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier
and more labor and time-intensive to manufacture.
Advancements in blade technology will help spur the
development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower
wind speeds. Current technology doesn’t easily allow for construction of
turbines that have rotor diameters exceeding 120 meters because of design,
manufacturing, assembly, and transportation constraints.
Wider, longer wind blades are tougher to move and
maneuver, and molds which form the clamshell fiberglass structure cost millions
of dollars to acquire. GE’s new fabric-based technology would all but eliminate
It’s estimated that to achieve the national goal of
20% wind power in the U.S., wind blades would need to grow by 50 percent — a
figure that would be virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints
imposed by current technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal
“Developing larger wind blades is the key to expanding
wind energy into areas we wouldn’t think of today as suitable for harvesting
wind power. Tapping into moderate wind speed markets, in places like the
Midwest, will only help grow the industry in the years to come,” Lin added.
The $5.6M ARPA-E project will span three years. GE’s blade
architecture will be built to achieve a 20 year life with no regular
maintenance to tension fabrics required.