GE Brilliant wind turbine

Photo: GE

I have something to confess. I am a huge fan of renewable energy, but I never paid much attention to science lessons in school.

That means I get awfully confused at the difference between MW and MWh. I develop a headache at discussion of the “capacity factor” of wind turbines. And I usually have to take a nap if someone starts explaining the market dynamics of “selling electricity to the frequency regulation segments of regional grid power markets”.

But here are a few things I do know:

  • The wind isn’t always blowing
  • The sun doesn’t always shine
  • Energy demand is not constant either
For many armchair critics of renewable energy, these three factors alone debunk the vision of a grid running largely or solely on clean, non-polluting sources of electricity. For others, they are simply a challenge that needs solving.

From reducing demand with aggressive efficiency and conservation efforts through better matching demand with supply through a smart grid to electric cars acting as storage for excess electricity supply, we’ve seen plenty of concepts that may help smooth out some of clean energy’s intermittency problems.

Now we can add to the roster of potential solutions a new wind turbine that generates more electricity at lower wind speeds, stores some excess energy for sale to the grid later (allowing owners to take advantage of higher prices), and also does a better job of analyzing and predicting the supply of wind energy too. In short, many clean energy advocates are pretty excited about GE’s 1.6-100 and 1.7-100 wind turbines and power management system.

Specifically, here are some of the features that clean tech geeks are getting excited about:

  • Improved blade designs resulting in a 47 percent increase in “swept area” (the square feet of the rotor) compared to previous models – meaning a 20-24 percent increase in power.
  • More energy harvested at lower wind speeds, resulting in a class-leading capacity factor of 54 percent. (Detail alert: the capacity factor is the actual power output over time, compared as a percentage to the theoretical power output of the turbine if it was producing at its maximum output at all times.)
  • A battery storage system that allows wind turbine operators to save excess electricity — either because they are producing more electricity than the grid needs at a given moment, or because they’ll get a better price for it later.
  • A sophisticated package of analytics equipment and software, which helps owners predict both when power will be needed and when the wind will be blowing, allowing communication between turbines in what’s been described as “an industrial Internet”.
A short ad from GE explains a little more:

Individually, each of the developments represented in the Brilliant turbines are a big deal. Collectively, says Andrew Burger of CleanTechnica, they have the potential to be game changing. In an enthusiastic, three-part series on the Brilliant turbines (see also part two, and part three), Burger explains why all this really matters to the rest of us – namely that the cost of wind energy has come down by 60 percent in recent years, making it competitive with new coal and natural gas plants. And that’s before you even start calculating all the hidden, but very real economic costs caused by our reliance on fossil fuels.

With conservative economists saying that damage from coal costs the U.S. economy more than the electricity it generates is worth, climate change slowing down the world economy already, and threatening to derail the gains made in fighting poverty too, any rational, real world cost-benefit analysis of clean energy versus fossil fuels should be a foregone conclusion.

Thankfully, even without putting a price on carbon or forcing polluters to pay for the health problems they create, advancement’s like GE’s Brilliant wind turbines may be tipping the scales in the favor of clean energy anyway.

And that can only be a good thing.

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