New Study: Bigger Is Better When It Comes To Wind Turbines

According to a  Swiss study, “the larger the (wind) turbine is, the greener the electricity becomes.” The study claims that for every doubling of the size of the turbine, “global warming potential per kWh (is) reduced by 14%.”

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The study was conducted by Marloes Caduff and his associates at the Zurich Institute of Environmental Engineering in Zurich, Switzerland.

Caduff et al. claim that there are two main reasons for the benefits of larger turbines. First, producers, now with decades of experience under their belts, are better at creating the massive blades, supports and motors. They “now have the knowledge, experience and technology to build big wind turbines with great efficiency.”

Second, recent advances in materials have allowed the turbines to dramatically increase in size without a corresponding increase in mass. That way, blades can be larger and capture much more wind while the tower and other parts can remain unchanged.

According to the researchers, the combined effects of these reasons allow for bigger and better turbines to be produced without using significantly more materials or drastically increasing transportation and assembly costs. The increased size of the turbines actually saves materials by reducing the number of total turbines needed to produce the same amount of power.

Wind energy is one of the fastest growing sources of energy on the planet and source of pride for alternative energy supporters. It now supplies about 2% of global energy needs and that number could rise as high as 10% by 2020. In the calender year 2011 alone , the global power capacity from wind increased by40,654 MW.

A recent study out of the UK indicated that the costs of off shore wind production could drop by up to one-third by the end of the decade.

If accurate, the study indicates that the general trend in the wind industry over the last 30 years has been the correct one.

In the 1970’s Vestas, the worlds leading wind manufacturer, released a turbine capable of producing 33KW of energy. The turbine had a blade diameter of 10 meters. Right now, Vestas’ top of the line turbine, an off shore model called the V164-7.oMW can generate, fittingly, 7.0 MW of energy and has a massive 80 meter blade length. The capacity for turbines like the V164-7.0MW has only developed recently and it seems certain that bigger and more powerful wind producers will be possible in the future.

The revelation that bigger is better in the world of turbine efficiency is bound to surprise some people. Paul Gipe, a wind expert and author of 7 books on the subject, was quoted a couple of years ago questioning the increased size trend: “The wind turbines don’t really need to get any larger. They’re big enough. There’s sometimes this obsession with going bigger and bigger and it’s not necessarily the size turbine that matters as much.”

According to Gipe, the most important developments in the history of wind power have been technological, things such as variable speed generation and electronics that allow engineers greater control, not blind increases in size. Now however, scientists and engineers have the ability to combine sophisticated controls and advanced technologies with absolutely massive turbines, thereby maximizing the efficiency and power generation from wind sources with a myriad of positive effects.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center For American Progress.

15 Responses to New Study: Bigger Is Better When It Comes To Wind Turbines

  1. Ray Duray says:

    Compare and contrast, Climate Denial Crock of the Week also has an article up regarding wind power:

  2. catman306 says:

    Not more than 2 months ago I read an article that claimed that proper placement of small wind turbines can increase the power potential significantly. I found a link.

    Wind-turbine Placement Produces Tenfold Power Increase, Caltech Researchers Say

  3. Omega Centauri says:

    Land based wind turbines have supposedly already reached their maximum size. The size limit is alleged to be the curviness of roads limits how long the blades can be. I’ve been wondering if there has been any work on two piece blades that can be assembled in the field?

  4. Dave Bradley says:

    Yes. Both Enercon and Gamesa now make turbine baldes that are composed of two parts and are assembled on site. However, the Enercon ones are not available in the US, becuase that company considers the renewable pricing system in the US just too stupid to be worthi ts while, and besides, they are doing plenty of business in other countries. These blades work on their bigger units (Enercon E-126 x 7.5 MW, Gamesa’s new G128 x 4.5/5 MW units).


  5. fj says:

    We are literally immersed in energy for the taking and the terrific advance of wind turbine technology is truly inspiring.

  6. Artful Dodger says:

    EarthTechling reports: “Vestas abandons plans for a new factory in the U.K. after receiving zero orders for the V164-7.0 MW offshore wind turbine it was going to build there.”

    “Vestas Ditches UK Giant Offshore Turbine Plant” Posted on June 22nd, 2012

  7. Calamity Jean says:

    What a shame!

  8. MorinMoss says:

    Interesting but these are vertical-axis turbines discussed in the article.

    How much research has been done with large horizontal-axis ones?

    I think the biggest impact will be improving turbine performance in low wind speed conditions which likely means lighter blades or a change in their shape.

  9. MorinMoss says:

    It looks like they’re headed for a Chinese takeover. I guess the plant will be built overseas; who knows where the 1st of these turbines will be installed.

  10. Martin Vermeer says:

    Actually the result reported by this paper is almost unimportant: the ‘global warming potential’ of wind turbines is very small already as it is. It is paid off by fossil-fuel electricity substitution in mere months of operation, after which the power is 100% clean for the 30 years or so of useful life:

    This assumes that non- carbon neutral energy is used for constructing the turbines. At some point, of course, this will no longer be the case.

  11. Les Southwell says:

    Does doubling “size” here mean doubling the linear dimensions, or the power output?

  12. Greg Jalbert says:

    Here are three very powerful and interesting alternatives to landbased wind turbines:

    Makani’s Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) can create inexpensive energy, in more locations than traditional wind turbines, because it flies where the wind is stronger and more consistent.

    The Makani AWT can transform wind power:
    * Produces power at up to half the cost of traditional wind turbines
    * Accesses the stronger and more consistent winds at altitude
    * 90% less material than a conventional turbine, it is less expensive to build and install
    * Opens up large new areas of wind resource, including the vast resources offshore above deep water
    * Allows for deployment outside of visually or environmentally sensitive locations

    The Makani AWT is a practical solution:
    * Requires no more space than conventional turbines
    * Capable of handling large, sudden shifts in wind speed and direction
    * Redundant, fault tolerant design
    * Lightning hardened

    I’d love to see an in depth article by ThinkProgress on the feasibility of these technologies in making a significant reduction reduction in the climate crisis.

  13. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Yes. Bigger is beautiful and bountiful as far as Wind Turbines are concerned. Bigger Turbines means less space to install and Bigger turbines make sense in offshore wind farms as sea roughness factor is zero and offshore the wind speeds are high.

    Scientists Marloes Caduff and colleagues have concluded in a new study that, the larger the wind turbine, the greener the electricity it produces. The report appears in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology
    Their study showed that bigger turbines do in fact produce greener electricity, for two primary reasons:
    • Manufacturers now have the knowledge, experience, and the technology to build big wind turbines with great efficiency, minimizing the need for research and development.
    • Advanced materials and designs permit the efficient construction of large turbine blades that harness more wind without proportional increases in their mass or the masses of the tower and the nacelle that houses the generator. In other words, more clean power without the large increases in the amount of material necessary for construction or fuel for transportation of said materials.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert

  14. Loyalist442 says:

    The ignorance and/or lies displayed here concerning wind power is incredible. Wind power is still so ineffective on a power grid it wouldn’t even be considered, let alone built, if it wasn’t so profitable to the builders, thanks to our tax dollars in the form of energy credits, tax deductions, and the like. The machines require expensive maintenance, sound like a pack of trains running, and are no where near as enviromentally friendly as their promoters claim. On average, electricity produced by wind turbines costs at least three times that produced by coal burning turbines. The whole package is a lie, period. And any honest engineer will admit it. It’s 21st century snake oil sold to the ignorant, by the dishonest, who laugh all the way to the bank. Ask Europe what they think of all their wind turbines and how their all their projects worked out. But here in the U.S. there’s a fresh pool of dumb tree huggers to con and they’re doing it. Do some homework folks before you spend our money. You’ll feel awfully stupid once you learn the truth, if you have even half a brain.

  15. Although the study by Caltech to maximise the efficiency of these vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) is very interesting and really good use of biomemetics in engineering, the actual energy generated by the VAWTs is still very small compared to a traditional horizontal wind turbine. Each turbine in the Caltech study only has a maximum output of 1.2kW, compared to 2-3MW for a standard 100m rotor diameter horizontal turbine. That means that even if their performance was comparable, you’d need 2000 of the small turbines to produce the same amount of energy as the single large turbine!

    In practice in addition to this the VAWTs have a much lower capacity factor and don’t generate as much yield in kWh over the year for a given kW of rated power (around 8-12% capacity factor is what I’ve seen for VAWTs compared to 25-45% for a commercial wind farm), so you’d actually need more turbines again, perhaps 2-4 times more to get the same yield, so as many as 8000 of the tiny VAWT turbines for the same power as for a standard turbine.

    So although the efficiency increases from the Caltech study are a positive step for designing a VAWT setup, don’t expect them to replace the traditional three blade turbine anytime soon.