Technological advances are improving wind power’s competitiveness

» By | Published 26 Feb 2013

Anti-wind power lobbyists have long contested claims by the wind industry that wind power is competitive with fossil fuels. But technological advances, making wind turbines bigger, smarter, and more competitive in all situations, mean the wind is fast being taken out of the naysayers’ sails.

Both EWEA and GWEC, the Global Wind Energy Council, agree that “onshore wind power is competitive once all the costs that affect traditional energy sources – like fuel and CO2 costs, and the effects on environment and health – are factored in”. Taking CO2 costs alone, “if a cost of €30 per tonne of CO2 emitted was applied to power produced, onshore wind energy would be the cheapest source of new power generation in Europe,” states EWEA. Moreover, wind is already “directly competitive with conventional sources in many places around the world, such as Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, parts of China and the US,” according to GWEC.

Australia also seems to have been added to this list after a report published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) in February stated that wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels in producing electricity in Australia, a story reported on this blog at the time.

This game-changing potential is being given greater weight by technological advances – at least two of which were launched at EWEA 2013. The biggest impact on electricity production comes from making wind turbines bigger. Siemens Energy launched its new 4MWoffshore wind turbine at the conference in Vienna, which boasts a rotor diameter of 130 meters and provides slightly larger capacity that the current 3.6MW turbine. Meanwhile, Nordex unveiled two new 3MW machines – one for medium wind speeds and the other for very windy areas. The new machines have much larger rotors than previous platforms, increasing the swept area by 23-37% with a view to boosting energy yields by up to 31%, said the company.

Increasing the size of a wind turbine’s blades, and making the tower taller, allow a turbine to capture more wind, especially at low speeds. Certain companies are ensuring that they get the most out of such improvements by employing cutting-edge techniques. GE announced at the end of January the creation of a 2.5-120 wind turbine (a 2.5 MW machine with a rotor length of 120m), which over the course of a year can generate 15% more kilowatt hours that the turbines it is replacing. To reach this potential, the turbine will be operated and managed by specially developed algorithms that will let it keep turning when earlier generations of wind turbines would have had to shut down.

Vestas have also announced a new offshore turbine, the V164-8.0 MW, with a swept area of more than 21,000m2 – the equivalent to almost three football pitches. “When it comes to profitability, the biggest the swept area, the bigger the revenue,” the company says. Vestas also points out that bigger turbines means fewer turbines, fewer foundations and less cabling.

This is all great news, but there is still a long way to go. As Kobad Bhavnagri, head of clean energy research for Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Australia, pointed out, while “new wind is cheaper than building new coal and gas, [it] cannot compete with old assets that have already been paid off”. For that reason “policy support is still needed to put megawatts in the ground today and build up the skills and experience to de-carbonise the energy system in the long-term,” said Bhavnagri.