A new journal article published in Science, “Grand challenges in the science of wind energy,” invites researchers to confront certain challenges in hopes of driving innovation that will make wind energy the world’s primary source of low-cost electricity generation. Sandia National Laboratories’ Wind researcher Josh Paquette is part of the international team of scientists led by staff from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that produced this work.
“This article is an important addition to the literature, in that it treats the topic of wind energy as a distinct and interdisciplinary science topic,” Paquette said.
The article identified three “grand challenges” in wind energy research that require further progress from the scientific community:
First grand challenge: Improved understanding of the wind resource and flow in the region of the atmosphere where wind power plants operate.
Scientists must first understand the dynamics of wind at these elevations and scales as wind turbines increase in height to capture greater energy resource and wind plants spread over greater distance. There are still major gaps exist in knowledge of wind flows in complex terrain or under varying atmospheric stability conditions, even though past use of simplified physical models and basic observational technology has allowed for installation of wind power plants and predictions of performance in a variety of terrain types. The first challenge is to model those differing conditions, so the wind plant can be optimized, cost-effective, and controllable—and installed in the right location.
Second grand challenge: Addressing the structural and system dynamics of the largest rotating machines in the world.
With blade lengths exceeding 80 meters and towers rising well above 100 meters, wind turbines are now the largest flexible, rotating machines in the world. Three of the largest passenger aircrafts—Airbus A380-800s—could fit nose-to-nose within the swept area of one wind turbine rotor. New materials and manufacturing processes are needed to address the emerging issues of scalability, transportation, and recycling as these turbines continue to get larger. The intersection of turbine and atmospheric dynamics raises several important research questions, as well. Past assumptions on which previous generations of wind turbines were designed no longer apply. Therefore, the challenge lies not only in understanding the atmosphere, but also in deciphering which factors are critical in both power-generation efficiency and structural safety.
Third grand challenge: Designing and operating wind power plants to support and foster grid reliability and resiliency.
The electricity grids of the future will likely be drastically different from today, with high wind and solar penetrations. Essential grid services, such as frequency control, ramping, and voltage regulation are possible using wind. Innovative controls could leverage the attributes of wind turbines to optimize plant energy output while supplying these essential services. For instance, using big data techniques on information from sensors distributed on machines around the plant has potential to enhance energy capture and reduce cost. The distributed power electronics in the converters connected to the generators could also be used to manage grid requirements. The path to realizing this future will require substantial research at the intersections of atmospheric flow modeling, individual turbine dynamics, and wind plant control with the larger electric system operation.
Building on one challenge to the next will be essential. Characterizing the wind power plant operating zone in the atmosphere will be essential to making progress in designing the next generation of even larger low-cost wind turbines. Understanding both dynamic control of the machines and forecasting the nature of the atmospheric inflow will enable the control of the plant needed for grid support.
“Making renewable energy cost-effective has been one of the most significant accomplishments of the science and engineering community over the past few decades,” said Paquette. “Reliably converting the vast majority of our energy supply to these variable sources is the next challenge, and much research is yet to be done.”
For more information about the international work that formed the basis of the article, read the workshop report.
To learn more about the work Josh Paquette and Sandia researchers are conducting, visit Sandia’s Wind Power program.