Where Is The Real Innovation In Wind Energy?

April 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Carbon Pricing

Published on April 21st, 2014
by Mike Barnard


Wind energy is a tremendous success story world wide, with staggering amounts of innovation. It isn’t given sufficient credit for that and is even unfairly attacked by those opposed to it as old technology. Every aspect of construction, operation, and the business of horizontal axis wind turbines has been subject to extensive innovation over the past 40 years. Whether it is increased height, materials, or maintenance, extensive directed research and incremental innovation has made wind energy directly competitive with fossil fuel generation, even the unnaturally cheap unconventional gas-powered generation in the USA.


Image courtesy http://steinvox.com/blog/invention-is-not-innovation-field-of-dreams-strategy-almost-always-fails/

Inovation is a wildly overused term. Some people think that having a cool idea is innovation. Many people think it’s just invention, and further that unless something is brand new and different than what came before, it isn’t innovative. Invention comes up with something new or a new combination of old things, while innovation brings something new or a new combination of old things to market successfully. Patents are mostly a history of invention, not innovation, and there are innumerable patents which describe things of no market value.

In the past couple of months, I’ve written a handful of articles which deflate some commonly hyped wind ‘innovations’. One was a realistic overview of airborne wind energy in general, one looked closely at Google Makani, one checked the status of offshore vertical axis wind turbines, one dealt with a lesser known airborne wind generation approach called Sky Windpower, and one pointed out why vertical axis wind turbines barely generate any electricity worldwide compared to the iconic alternative. The proponents of those technologies claim that they are disruptive innovations, usually without understanding what that means.


Innovation has two flavours: disruptive and incremental. A disruptive innovation is the combination of a product or service, a distribution channel, and a business model that either creates a new market or redefines an existing market. An incremental innovation makes an existing product, service, channel, or business model more efficient or more attractive, increasing profit or market share within an existing market. Christiansen and Raynor’s work The Innovator’s Solution, the follow-on to The Innovator’s Dilemma, is strongly recommended reading for clarity on this subject. The fundamental graphic from that book, included here, is worth spending time to understand. The dilemma for market leaders is that disruptive innovations often draw away the least profitable potential clients first and are not attractive to the most profitable clients. As a result, disruptive innovations are easy to dismiss initially and often increase short-term profits for market leaders, but then eventually cannibalize more and more of the most profitable clients. Examples include Xerox ignoring Canon’s ascendance in photocopying, digital cameras’ destruction of the film camera market, transistor radios blowing away tube radios, and many others. Each started with an obviously ‘inferior’ product by the standards of the market, but had other advantages which enabled them to find a new market. They then innovated incrementally until they supplanted the previous market leaders entirely.

The wind industry centred around the iconic three-blade horizontal axis wind turbine is an example of a disruptive innovation. It used to be the equivalent of an early digital camera compared to the high-end SLRs of nuclear and fossil fuel generation. It had different advantages, ones that legacy generation technologies considered immaterial. It was easy to parallelize construction for example because each individual generator was relatively small, and wind farms could incrementally go live. It had no negative externalities to speak of, so environmental reviews were much easier and governments quite reasonably saw it as something worth incentivizing. It had amazing social license, so there was much less of a problem with NIMBYism than putting in a coal or nuclear generation plant. It had no waste to deal with, whether air pollution or spent fuel rods, so there were no long-term liabilities to be concerned about. And it had very low operational costs because it didn’t need any fuel, including the need to transport and store it, so when the wind was blowing and it participated in short-term energy markets it could make lots of money as peaker plants set the price. But it didn’t generate as much electricity as reliably as fossil, hydro, or nuclear plants; the electricity was more expensive per KWH; and it couldn’t provide baseload power, so major players in the energy marketplace dismissed it. Many legacy generation organizations made small purchases of wind farms as a greenwashing technique on top of their highly polluting core assets.

merit order 2Obviously wind energy is an increasingly dominant product in the energy marketplace. It’s now setting peak prices in wholesale energy markets worldwide via the merit order effect. This is cutting into legacy generation organizations’ revenues and profits in multiple ways. New nuclear plants aren’t getting built and it’s tough to fund upgrades. New coal plants aren’t being built outside of a few countries, and old ones are shutting down worldwide. Peaker generation assets, typically gas but sometimes coal, are not making nearly as much profit during peaks when the wind is blowing. Now the question is whether to build gas generation plants or wind farms for major generation assets, and the previous market dominant organizations are scratching their heads.

So, how did wind go from being the crappy transistor radio to such a major disruptive force to the tube radio market of nuclear and coal generation? Incremental innovation is the answer, much of it funded by industry along with governmental support. Here are the major areas of incremental technical innovation that have been playing out over the past forty years:

  • Wind turbine heightthe wind is stronger higher off of the ground and taller wind turbines can catch more of it.
  • Mechanical efficiency: wind turbines have slowly evolved to eliminate unnecessary gearing and friction. Many now have no gearboxes at all, significantly reducing complexity and gearing-related losses.
  • Specialization: Lower wind conditions get bigger blades and smaller generators. Higher wind conditions get narrower blades and larger generators.
  • Aerodynamic improvements: The blades cut through the air better and generate more aerodynamic lift due to changes to their shape through their length to accommodate different relative air speeds between tip and hub.
  • Optimized maintenance: Well understood and costed best practices for maintaining specific wind turbines in specific conditions, ensure that they maintain the optimal balance, lubrication and uptime. Wind turbines now typically see 98% availability to generate electricity, a huge increase over even fifteen years ago and better than any legacy form of generation, partly due to maintenance and partly design optimization.
  • Robustness: Wind turbines are now large-scale machines with better tolerance for high-winds, icing, and other realities of exposed structures. Wind turbine failure, while it makes for spectacular pictures and videos, is extremely rare.
  • Wind modeling: Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 10.31.30 AMUnderstanding and modeling of wind conditions at specific sites is much more accurate now than 20 years ago. This allows the right wind turbines to be selected and sited to maximize use of the wind resource in the specific location.
  • Instrumentation and automation: Wind turbines are heavily computerized today to adjust to maximize power output in different wind conditions. In addition, they are connected through SCADA-interfaces to wind farm managers and grid operators who receive real-time updates on the state of the turbines, allowing much faster response in the event of problems. This maximizes performance in the moment and minimizes downtime.
  • Advanced materials: Materials for blades are being refined regularly, with stronger and lighter blades enabling increased robustness and increased efficiency.
  • Advanced coatings: Manufacturers are now applying advanced coatings which deteriorate much more slowly on blades, especially the leading edge. This increases laminar flow and maintains aerodynamic efficiency for longer.

The combination of these innovations has led to onshore 2.5–3.0 MW wind turbines that see 50% capacity factors in 500 MW wind farms. That’s a long way from the initial wind farms in Tehachapi Pass in the USA for example, where the wind turbines were 25–60 KW devices with capacity factors of perhaps 20%.

upscalingThis highlights another myth of wind energy: that no more efficiency gains are possible. There is tremendous ongoing innovation in wind power generation. The Innwind Project is the most obvious example of that today. It is the follow-on to the successful Upwind Project, which broke the back of technical and engineering challenges for 10 MW wind turbines. The Innwind Project, a consortium of industry organizations, research institutes, universities, and governmental agencies, is aiming to do the same for 20 MW wind turbines. And these are the iconic three-blade horizontal-axis wind turbines of course.

In the meantime, there has been ongoing evolution of business models and incentive programs as well. Global supply chains for onshore and offshore wind energy are constantly being improved. Major freight transportation firms and boutique organizations have built expertise in transporting wind turbine components, including specialized trailers for blades. The many small firms which existed decades ago have either grown into industry giants like Vestas or been consumed by them or other players such as GE and Suzlon.

The evolution of the Feed In Tariff policy mechanism in countries such as Canada and Germany has provided one approach that allows the significant societal and economic benefits of wind energy to be matched by long-term financing stability through guaranteed rates. In the USA, the Production Tax Credit has been much less of a success due to it’s instability, but many states and municipalities provided additional incentives which enabled the USA to be a long-term leader in deployment of wind energy, although it has been supplanted by China now. Carbon taxes in Canada and Australia have had beneficial impacts on the wind energy market, due to the harsh realities that they represent for fossil fuel generation, although Australia’s is at threat due to the new and regressive government with strong ties to legacy generation technologies that has taken power there.

wind-turbines17It’s worth pointing out, of course, that much the same story can be told about photovoltaic solar generation, with its plummeting prices based on incremental innovations around silicon technology and global supply chains. That’s a story for another person to tell, however.

The industry that has grown around the three-blade horizontal axis wind turbine is one of the disruptive forces of innovation in the energy industry today with over 300 GW of installed capacity worldwide. Other wind generation technology research and development efforts are at best side bets, enabling statistically insignificant amounts of generation in minor niches.

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About the Author

is Senior Fellow — Wind, with the Energy and Policy Institute. Mike has been a deeply interested observer of energy systems for three decades. After discovering the depth and breadth of disinformation related to wind energy, he became a blogger on wind energy, renewables and global grid concerns, focusing on debunking myths about wind power. As a day job, Mike has the good fortune to work as a business and technical architect on major global initiatives that IBM is uniquely positioned to undertake. He brings his large systems thinking to bear on energy and renewables in a variety of forums, including his blog barnardonwind.comQuora.com and energy focussed discussions world wide.

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  • Will onshore wind turbines go bigger than 3 megawatts? I shrug my shoulders and say, “I guess so.” As mentioned already, there are two basic suggestions for making them bigger. Make blades in pieces that can be assembled on site or make the blades completely on site. I’d like to add a third suggestion – giant wind turbine construction via giant roboblimp. That’s not really a serious suggestion, I just like putting the word robo in front of other words. But it could be done, even though about the only thing blimps and airships in general have done for the past 70 years is promise they’ll be making a comeback anytime now. Since there are going to be big nacelles available for offshore use, I’m sure people are going to be considering how to use those beauties on land. My guess is the economics of it will result in bigger land based wind turbines at some point, as Victorians and other weirdos make locations for new wind farms artificially scarce. But I could easily be wrong on this. Perhaps offshore wind will show rapid decreases in cost and remove some of the pressure to build bigger on land. And perhaps lowering costs through means other than embiggeration will turn out to be the far more effective course for onshore wind.

    • “…as Victorians and other weirdos make locations for new wind farms artificially scarce.”

      It’s not so much Victorians, just the stupid Conservative government and its connections to fossil fuels.

      I’d love to see some 3+ megawatt turbines on coastal sites.

      • Yes, that was definitely a bit of an unfair slur against the poor coal smoke breathing denizens of my neighbouring state. And if you’re looking for big wind turbines, Mcarther wind farm in Victoria uses 3 megawatt ones and is by the coast. I don’t think we have any coastal 3 megawatties here in South Australia yet, but give us time. As soon as we get some sensible behaviour from our politicians we’ll get onto it. I’m expecting our federal leadership to say, “Surprise! Only kidding! We’re not actually short sighted idiots willing to gamble our grandchildren lives on our gut feelings trumping science!” any time now. Well, either that or they’ll peel off their human skins and reveal their true, CO2 huffing, alien forms.

  • Thanks Mike, excellent article!

  • Incremental improvement that is sustained over a long period of time, can be a disruptive force.

  • God stuff as usual.from Mike.
    The mental model I use is :
    Invention – innovation – dissemination.
    The dissemination phase includes the supply chain and reliability factors you mention, and the economies of scale you don’t. Simply making more of anything usually makes it cheaper, through generic processes like division of labour, specialised machinery, and the growing experience of designers and workers. That’s why the learning curves of technologies are surprisingly stable over long spans of time.

    The rapid improvement in wind as in solar technology has been helped by the fact that IP is limited and dispersed. The basic design principles are in the public domain. The patented innovations like GE’s operating software can be emulated by different methods.

    How much further can HAWTs go? The 10-20 MW turbines you cite are only practicable offshore, where parts of more of less any size can be floated to site on ships. On land we have already reached the practical limit of ca. 3 MW and 50-60m blades, constrained by road transport. It would be possible to manufacture bigger rotor blades on site, but you would lose the economies of scale from factory manufacture. My guess is that onshore wind will only see modest further efficiency gains, from manufacturing and O M more than big design changes.

    However, radical improvements are not necessary to make wind the cheapest generating source of all if you throw in, as you should, a real or implied carbon tax. Rolling out tens of thousands of current designs is a perfectly sound scenario for sustainability.

    • The Siemens SWT-6.0-120 6 MW turbine has a rotor diameter of 120 metres. so about 60 meter long blades.

      Any idea what blades like this might weigh?

      • The Siemens 6,0 MW turbine is now featuring a 154 meter rotor with 75 meter blades. Individual blades weigh around 25 tons.

    • Blades might be assembled on site without losing economies of scale…

      January 2, 2013

      A new design that calls for wrapping architectural fabric around metal wind turbine blades—instead of the traditional fiberglass—could be the latest revolution in dramatically reducing the cost of wind-produced power.

      That’s the focus of a new project that partners NREL with General Electric (GE) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute State University. Together, they are rethinking the way wind blades are designed, manufactured, and installed.

      The new blade design could reduce blade costs 25% to ­40%, which could make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies, according to a recent GE news release. The focus of the research will center around using architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone.

      The hope for the new blade technology will be to help encourage the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. The new approach to making wind blades would also reduce the often-pricey capital investment that is associated with installing a wind turbine as components could be built and assembled onsite, meaning design engineers would no longer face hassles with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Another bonus: the blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20-year life span and runs without regular maintenance to the tension of the fabric


      • I agree Bob. Betting that over long periods of time no one can come up with a better way to do something. Is normally not a good idea. Don’t know what the improvements to onshore wind will be, or how they will get bigger. But the first I’m sure of and the second I would not bet against. I think we will see taller towers, if by nothing else having “some assembly required”.

        • “Betting that over long periods of time no one can come up with a better way to do something. Is normally not a good idea”.
          The counterexample is commercial aviation speeds.The Concorde SST turned out to be not only a white elephant but a dead end. The latest jets fly at the same speed as the Comet and the 707 of fifty years ago.

          There really are technical/economic walls. Bob produced an actual example why I might be wrong (which would be very good news). General presumptions don’t hack it.

          BTW, there is good reason to think that solar pv is nowhere near its technical limits of efficiency. Once you go multi-junction, the Shockley-Queisser limit ceases to apply. Somebody will figure out how to make a two-layer cell of 30% efficiency cheaply.

          • Jet speed of course runs into limitations due to aerodynamics, in this case transonic and supersonic windflow rapidly create drag and other problems as speed increases. In fact as fuel prices increased, backing off a couple of percent on airspeed was done, because the time versus cost tradeoff is affected by fuelcost.

            Lots of possible ways to have field final assembly of turbine blade pieces, such of two piece blades, or other methods for breaking down a large blade into two or more transportable sections. That happened with towers a long time ago, and now other “architectural” changes are being explored in the pursuit of taller.

        • Very recently someone released info on a wind tower that would be assembled on site (all the components delivered in standard shipping containers) and covered with some sort of skin.

          I can’t seem to figure out the correct search words at the moment.

          Seems like it was a major company.

          We may see mobile factories that travel to the sites of new wind farms and put together towers and blades on site.

          Multi-billion dollar business is going to attract some creative thinkers.

          • Here it is, Bob.


          • That’s it. Thanks.

            GE’s got the space frame and the “fabric” blades. That’s the package.
            I assume the generator and nacelle could be trucked in broken down in pieces and assembled on site if they are too large for normal trucking.

          • The space frame is problematic. All turbines used to have lattice towers, but birds roost in them and it maximizes avian mortality. Doubling the raptor mortality is not a promising start.

            I’m not so sure about that one obviously.

          • This one is covered. Roosting is not an option.

          • Here’s an inside view.

            It’s not as pretty on the outside as an ordinary tower, but that might be improved.

    • Good point about economies of scale. It’s certainly part of the reality, and was an oversight as I was writing this.

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