GE, Virginia Tech and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), will begin work on a project that could change the way wind blades are designed, manufactured and installed.
With most of the cost of electricity for wind tied up in the initial capital investments made in the wind turbines themselves, new technology advancements that reduce these costs could substantially lower the overall cost of wind energy.
According to GE, this new blade design could reduce blade costs 25 percent-40 percent, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.
GE's research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs that run the length of the blade and specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations. Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier and more labor and time-intensive to manufacture.
Advancements in blade technology will help spur the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. Current technology doesn't easily allow for construction of turbines that have rotor diameters exceeding 120 meters because of design, manufacturing, assembly and transportation constraints.
Wider, longer wind blades are tougher to move and maneuver, and molds, which form the clamshell fiberglass structure, cost millions of dollars to acquire. GE's new fabric-based technology would all but eliminate these barriers.
With this new approach to making wind blades, components could be built and assembled on site, meaning design engineers no longer have to concern themselves with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Taken together, these improvements will help reduce start-up costs and the cost of wind-generated electric in general.
It's estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20 percent wind power in the U.S., wind blades would need to grow by 50 percent — a figure that would be virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints imposed by current technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable.
The use of fabrics to reduce weight and provide a cost-effective cover dates back to the World War I era, when it was used on airplanes. Over the years fabric has proved to be rugged and reliable and GE has already begun using this spaceframe/tension fabric design in the construction of wind towers for better aesthetics, cost, and protection.
The $5.6 million ARPA-E project will span three years. GE's blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20 year life with no regular maintenance to tension fabrics required.