The Front Range environment at the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) is harsh. The winds — the very reason the NWTC is there — have little mercy. The frigid cold of winter gives way to the baking sun of summer. Yet in the midst of this difficult landscape, the future of wind energy grows bigger and stronger thanks to the work being done by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) NWTC and its industry partners.
Findings from a recent report [PDF] by analysts from NREL and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicate that further technology improvements will be critical to increasing wind turbine efficiency and lowering the cost of wind power development in the future. Research at NREL’s NWTC is leading the way.
Giant Turbines Tower over the Landscape
The most noticeable change at the NWTC in recent years is the addition of four multi-megawatt wind turbines to be used for a wide variety of research and development (R&D) activities in collaboration with industry partners. The most recent of the four new turbines, a Gamesa 2.0-megawatt machine, was installed at the site in late 2011.
“The addition of these four modern megawatt-scale machines has been truly transformational for our center,” said Fort Felker, director of the NWTC. “Not just in the physical landscape, but in the depth and relevance of the research that is going on here. It’s changed the way industry thinks about us in the sense that now the work we are doing is directly relevant, clearly impactful, and immediately beneficial to them.”
Each of the four turbines is a test apparatus with unique attributes. For example, the Siemens 2.3-megawatt turbine at the site has extensive instrumentation and structural load measurement capabilities in the blades, nacelle, and down the tower all the way into the underground foundation beneath the turbine. This allows researchers to connect the entire path of unsteady loads caused by turbulence in the wind to better identify where improvements will directly lead to more efficient turbines and lower-cost wind energy.
Large Turbines Need Large Components
The next sizable step into the future of wind energy is an expansion of the dynamometer testing capabilities at the NWTC. The new dynamometer facility scheduled for completion this summer will dramatically expand the capability of NREL and its industry partners to verify the performance and reliability of wind turbine drivetrain prototypes and commercial machines.
The new facility is capable of testing drivetrains up to 5.8 megawatts — large enough to test virtually any land-based turbine for the foreseeable future — and will employ a non-torque loading capability that is dynamically variable. This means researchers will be better able to simulate conditions a turbine might experience in the field.