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How to Cut the Cost of Wind Energy in Half By 2030

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New energy science and technological breakthroughs could cut the cost of wind energy in half by 2030—making it fully competitive with the fuel cost of natural gas.

This new finding is outlined in a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that examines the future of wind power plants—backed by the supercomputing power of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) national laboratories.

It’s part of DOE’s Atmosphere to Electrons initiative, which focuses on maximizing efficiencies at the plant level (i.e., how wind turbines interact with one another and the atmosphere) rather than treating each wind turbine as an individual unit. The next step is for DOE to apply high-performance computing to this grand challenge of better understanding the complex physics that control electricity generation by wind plants.

The Wind Plant of the Future

According to NREL, the wind plant of the future will use a collection of technologies that allow wind power plants and the turbines within them to not only respond to the atmosphere as an efficient, integrated system, but also to control the airflow within the plant to maximize power production. This approach is made possible by recent advances in supercomputing technology, which turns large sets of atmospheric and wind turbine operation data into a high-fidelity model. Industry can then use these government-driven scientific insights to design new wind turbine components, sensors, and controls. Future wind power plants would include:

  • High-fidelity modeling and state-of-the-art sensors to accurately estimate wind power plant energy production, reducing uncertainty and increasing predictability of electricity production

  • Integrated wind plant design, real-time active control of turbines, and operational strategies to increase reliability and extend turbine lifetimes

  • Innovative design of wind turbines and components such as rotors and drivetrains to optimize performance and enhance energy capture, including larger rotors and taller towers to capture higher-potential wind energy in the Earth’s upper atmosphere

  • Controllable, dispatchable, and predictable grid support services for grid resilience and stability, including precise forecasting of wind energy production for short-term grid operation and planning.

 

Enabling the SMART Wind Power Plant Through Advances in Wind Energy Science

 

The wind industry is cognizant of the substantive paradigm shift necessary to enable future

deployment of wind energy. Some aspects of next-generation wind power plants are already

emerging in the marketplace. For example, many companies are making significant investments in large computational resources to enable wind power plant digitization, extensive use of sensors, and data collection to create a digital replica of each wind turbine and the entire wind power plant. However, realizing the full potential of wind power plant innovation relies on A2e’s continued ability to address several core scientific challenges.

The collective effort of the DOE A2e program and industry will realize a future SMART wind

power plant: a collection of intelligent and novel technologies that allow wind power plants and the turbines within them not only to respond to the atmosphere as an efficient, integrated system but also to control the flow itself to maximize power production.

 

The traditional wind power plant turbines of equal size all face the incoming flow direction, as measured using their own individual sensors, and each tries to maximize its own energy production. There is no plant-level, integrated real-time control or real-time sensing

of the wind resource flow into the plant. Data harvested from the wind plant operations are used to support some analysis of trends for performance and reliability, but no large-scale efforts around data assimilation and modeling are used to optimize the plant operations. In contrast, the SMART wind power plant of the future contains turbines of various sizes that are each optimized to site-specific plant conditions with advanced technology and significant scaling. There is extensive real-time data collected from both the turbines and meteorological measurement equipment that are integrated at the control operations center for highly accurate forecasting of the plant energy production and full wind plant control that balances maximization of energy production with plant reliability and grid services.

 

The collection of innovations that define the SMART wind power plant discussed earlier was

identified in a series of workshops held with experts from the DOE national laboratory system and reviewed by wind industry experts. Experts were first asked to identify individual

innovations and then to aggregate them into groups. The resulting SMART wind power plant can be broken down into groups with specific science-based innovations in each category, including:

 

  1. High-fidelity wind power plant energy production estimation:

    1. Apply validated HFM and state-of-the-art sensing equipment to provide energy production estimates with reduced and well-quantified uncertainty

  2. Integrated wind power plant design, control, and operational strategies:

    1. Actively monitor the wind resource as it enters and passes through the wind power plant utilizing advanced sensing and data analysis methods to estimate the maximum power extraction potential and loading on all turbines and inform strategies for plant control and operation

    2. Implement integrated real-time control of all turbines within the wind power plant to actively:

      1. Entrain (incorporate) additional higher energy atmospheric flow into the wind power plant

      2. Extract the maximum amount of energy possible flowing through the rotor with adaptive controls on each turbine within the wind plant

      3. Actively steer lower energy turbine wakes (low energy flow behind the turbine rotors) away from the turbines located downstream to increase plant power production and reduce operating loads

      4. Execute longer-term operational strategies for increased reliability, reduced costs, and extended operational life to Design future wind power plants optimized to specific local wind resource conditions and complex terrain

  3. Innovative wind turbine machine design and technology:

    1. Advance novel turbine designs that enhance energy capture with rotor designs and drivetrain architectures that optimize and enhance individual turbine performance

    2. Evolve design standards to tailor the performance characteristics and requirements of each individual turbine within the plant to optimize the overall wind power plant production and cost performance

 

Wind’s Place in Shaping the Energy Landscape

The rise of wind energy over the past decade has been driven largely by technological advances that have made wind turbines more efficient at a lower cost. Wind was the third most-installed source of U.S. energy capacity in 2016 behind solar and natural gas. Between 2009 and 2016, installed project costs for new wind farms dropped 33 percent, while also generating more electricity per turbine.

Continued cost reductions will become even more important as wind’s main policy incentive, the federal production tax credit, expires in 2019. By leveraging high-performance computing and accelerating energy science R&D efforts for the wind plant of the future, wind energy costs could be cut in half by 2030 or sooner, bringing it below the projected fuel cost for natural gas.

Newly-built wind plants using production tax credits are already cost-competitive with new natural gas plants in some parts of the U.S., especially in the “wind belt” that runs from Texas to North Dakota. New energy science and technology breakthroughs outlined above could drop the unsubsidized cost of wind energy below the projected cost of fuel for existing natural gas plants by 2030.