The National Wind Technology Center (NWTC), located at the base of the foothills just south of Boulder, Colorado, is the nation’s premier wind energy technology research facility. Since the earliest days of wind energy, the center has provided an ideal environment for the research and development of advanced technologies.
As wind power grows to meet an ever-increasing portion of our nation’s energy needs, researchers at NWTC and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are working with industry partners to develop and deploy new technologies to support it. Here are just a few examples.
Better Gearboxes Make Better Wind Turbines
Premature failures of gearboxes, the mechanical equipment in a wind turbine that increases rotational speeds necessary for generators to produce electricity, can impact the cost of wind turbine operations. Thanks to research at the NWTC gearboxes are more reliable than ever.
NREL engineers stand in front of the new 5-megawatt (MW) Dynamometer Test Facility, a tool to test drivetrain designs. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
NREL’s 5-megawatt (MW) Dynamometer Test Facility allows NWTC engineers and their industry partners to verify the performance and reliability of wind turbine drivetrain prototypes and commercial machines. The dynamometer system replicates the rotor and blades of a wind turbine. The researchers can then control the turbine drivetrain’s mechanical and electrical systems while simulating normal and extreme operating conditions.
Conducting these tests before deployment is important because unanticipated failures can be detected and corrected early in the development process, leading to a lower cost of ownership for wind farm operators—and ultimately lower-cost wind energy for utility customers.
Another step toward improved gearbox performance is the work being done by the Gearbox Reliability Collaborative (GRC). The GRC applies a multi-pronged approach, combining analysis, field and laboratory testing, condition monitoring, and the development of a failure database, in its efforts to tackle this significant challenge for the wind industry.
NWTC engineers and their GRC industry partners have been able to identify shortcomings in the design, testing, and operation of wind turbines that contribute to reduced gearbox reliability. GRC findings are quickly shared among participants, including wind turbine manufacturers and equipment suppliers. Ultimately, the findings are made public for use throughout the industry. This knowledge is already resulting in increased gearbox reliability and an overall reduction in the cost of wind energy.
Modeling a Smarter Wind Farm
Improving the ways wind turbines interact with their surroundings and with one another can help boost the performance of wind farms. NREL’s-first-of-its kind software tool called Simulator for Wind Farm Applications (SOWFA) allows users to investigate the effects of weather patterns, turbulence, and complex terrain on individual wind turbines and entire wind plants.
NREL engineers review velocity (blue) and turbulence (yellow) in a simulation of the Lillgrund Wind Farm in Denmark. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
SOWFA — an open-source and free platform — simulates fluid dynamics on scales from regional weather to turbine wakes, and the impacts of these dynamics on turbine structural and system response. SOWFA also lets users simulate, through a central super-controller, coordinated multi-turbine control of wind plants.
Its improved look at the physics of wind energy helps wind developers better understand how their turbines interact with local weather conditions and with one another, a key contributor to the performance, efficiency, and cost of wind energy.
A Bright Future for Wind Energy
All of this testing can help foster the technological developments necessary for wider deployment of wind energy in the marketplace at the lowest cost possible. New wind turbines that are able to efficiently generate electricity — no matter where they are located and what the wind speeds are — will allow greater deployment of wind energy in more areas across the United States. This work is funded by the Energy Department’s Wind Energy Technologies Office.