Over the past 40 years, advances in adapting wind energy technology and improvements in predicting wind conditions have created significant growth in the use of wind turbines for electricity. A new report published in Applied Physics Reviews takes stock of where the wind energy field is now and what lies ahead.
In that report, a team of researchers from Germany surveyed the growth of wind technology as a source of renewable energy and assessed its viability for capturing larger shares of the energy production market in the future.
First, the researchers point out that there have been dramatic improvements in wind energy technology, thanks in part to economies of scale—that is, the more wind turbines there are, the better the technology gets because there is more money for research and development. The also say they believe wind turbines will get even larger and more cost-effective in the future.
“The size of a state-of-the-art turbine is extremely impressive. The swept area of the rotor of a standard turbine is now twice the size of a football field,” said Berthold Hahn, one of the paper’s authors. “In parallel to the development in size, the technology has also become mature, meaning cost-effective and reliable.”
Since the first use of commercial wind energy in the 1970s, wind turbines have improved to the point where they generate at least 100 times more power than earlier models did. The current large turbines can generate about 5 megawatts, but the expectation is that future turbine capacity could reach up to 15 megawatts. In those five decades, the cost to produce electricity from wind has gone from $500 per megawatt-hour to $50.
What’s the biggest driver of this increased effectiveness and lower production cost? “The technical developments, like floating offshore turbines enabling the harvest of wind energy in very deep waters, integrated control strategies considering the needs of the grid, and artificial intelligence permanently assisting the performance of the turbines, have contributed to the impressive cost reductions,” Hahn said.
But as with all industries, the wind energy industry faces continued pressure to reduce costs, and the report found one area that could provide that reduction: finding more economical ways to maintain the turbines. If producers can find ways to integrate historical maintenance data and real-time measurements from turbines, they would be able to detect turbine failures earlier.
Improvements in other areas of the power grid, such as power storage, could allow wind energy technology to be crucial in responding to the volatility of supply and demand that the electricity markets experience.
“In many countries, wind energy has started to take over tasks of stabilizing the grid from large, conventional plants, meaning that the energy systems are now … changing from a mainly centralized structure to a decentralized one,” Hahn concluded.
One other benefit of wind farms and other facilities such as solar power farms is that decentralized energy production could be a great way to protect the power grid from accidental failures or deliberate sabotage.