John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Wind experts see an era of super-sized turbines approaching, with larger blades and capacities, but lower costs.
Imagine a wind turbine so humongous it’d tower over the Washington Monument, jutting into the skyline and making itself visible many miles away. This vision of the future might not be far from reality, as turbines continue to get larger and more energetically ferocious.
With wind energy established across much of the world, some have wondered if turbine technology has hit a limit in terms of size and generation versus cost. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and elsewhere interviewed 163 international wind experts, and in Nature Energy state the conclusion that no, they’re bound to get bigger yet.
Today’s offshore turbines typically use 262-foot towers and blades 328 feet in diameter; by 2030 they could have 410-foot towers and blades 623 feet in diameter, which would sweep an area five times larger than a football field.
The growth of offshore turbines is expected to be monstrous partly because oceanic farms are expensive to build, requiring them to be more economically productive. For land-based turbines in North America, the growth will likely be smaller, though still impressive, with 377-foot towers and blades 443 feet across.
By 2030, turbines are also expected to evolve larger generator capacities: 4 MW to 11 MW for offshore versions and 2 MW to 3.25 MW for U.S. land-based turbines. Meanwhile their costs are likely to drop, with the wind experts giving a “median scenario” prediction of as much as a 30 percent reduction over the same time period. Of course, this is all dependent on how much research and cash is devoted to turbine technology. The researchers explain:
Those really large turbines will require fundamental technological advancements, and thus a need for public and private R&D. The U.S. Department of Energy is looking into ways to help enable larger turbines, on land and at sea. The EU-funded UpWind and, more recently, INNWIND.EU projects are emphasizing turbines up to 20 MW in size. ...
As is often the case with R&D, the original vision may or may not ever come to full fruition. But the scientific advancements will likely bleed into the commercial wind sector regardless, helping to achieve the potential benefits of turbine scale in reducing costs, enhancing the market value of wind energy, and opening new areas for possible wind development.