Turbines, Bigger & Better

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Prototype wind turbines whirl at a testing site in Osterild, near the northern end of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. By Rasmus Degnbol

Thanks to the New York Times for this reminder that, in spite of what headlines often lead us to believe, progress is out there on as many fronts as we care to look to:

How Windmills as Wide as Jumbo Jets
Are Making Clean Energy Mainstream

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Blades for wind turbines lie outside a factory, waiting to be transported to wind farms.By Rasmus Degnbol

OSTERILD, Denmark — At the northern end of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, the wind blows so hard that rows of trees grow in one direction, like gnarled flags.

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Technicians reach the roof of these enormous wind turbines either via an internal elevator or, if the turbine is installed offshore, by helicopters that lower them into the fenced-off area.By Rasmus Degnbol

The relentless weather over this long strip of farmland, bogs and mud flats — and the real-world laboratory it provides — has given the country a leading role in transforming wind power into a viable source of clean energy.

After energy prices spiked during the 1973 oil crisis, entrepreneurs began building small turbines to sell here. “It started out as an interest in providing power for my parents’ farm,” said Henrik Stiesdal, who designed and built early prototypes with a blacksmith partner.

The initial windmills made by small operations had quality problems. Blades — then just 15 feet in length — would break or fall apart.

Now, they are giants, made by global players pulling off enormous feats of engineering.

The biggest turbines in Osterild stretch more than 600 feet high. The largest rotor blades can reach 270 feet in length, comparable to the wingspan of an Airbus A380, the world’s largest commercial plane. The price tag: Up to 10 million euros, or more than $12 million.

The monstrous scale has helped turn wind into a mainstream form of power.

Larger turbines harness more wind, creating more energy. The biggest modern offshore turbines produce nearly 20 times as much power as ones developed three decades ago.

The larger the size, the lower the cost of generating energy. In parts of northern Europe, wind is now a major power source. It accounts for 4 percent of overall global energy supply, according to the International Energy Agency.

From those early Danish innovators, the industry has grown to be dominated by companies like Vestas Wind Systems and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy.

The heart of the Siemens Gamesa business lies in Brande, a small Jutland town. It was there in the early 1980s that an entrepreneur named Peter Sorensen founded a wind business called Bonus with a couple of workers from his father’s irrigation company.

Siemens bought Bonus in 2004, and today, Brande is home to large engineering, training and maintenance hubs.

Staff sitting at consoles there can monitor wind farms around the globe. Often, when a problem shuts a turbine down, they can restart it electronically without needing to send a maintenance team…

Read the whole story here.

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