When you look at the towering turbines and churning blades of a wind farm, you're missing a critical detail: the electronics inside.

National Instruments (NI) calls its real-time sensor networks, wireless sensor networks, and reconfigurable hardware "engineering tools." NI's guiding principle is the engineering maxim that if it can be measured, it can be made more efficient. The company's tools are just beginning to find acceptance as renewable energy developers seek to enhance efficiency and drive down costs by measuring and mastering everything from how straight a turbine is standing to where the best sun exposure in a solar power plant may be.

"NI tools help lower R&D costs for renewable energy systems and get their products on to the market faster," Brian MacCleery, NI's Senior Product Manager for Clean Energy Technology, said. In the wind industry, he said, these tools are being used to measure things as diverse as the shifting of turbine foundations, stresses on turbine blades and wear on gearbox bearings. The result is wind farms with more stability, more reliability and more output.

The crucial nature of such technology to the wind business is growing as the demand for a more competitive price comes from ever-cheaper and more abundant natural gas resources.

Marian Justiss, Xtreme Power's Director of Engineering, explained why her company is incorporating the NI technology into its energy storage systems. "[National Instrument's] cutting-edge hardware and software offer proven reliability and high data rate capabilities," Justiss wrote. "Our engineering staff is also looking forward to fully tapping into the robust functionality."

Increasingly, engineers want to work with the NI tools because of their diverse applications.  MacCleery explained that technologies such as "wireless sensor networks, real-time distributed sensor networks, and FPGA-based reconfigurable I/O hardware ... are relatively new to the wind industry." But the reconfigurable hardware, MacCleery notes, is central to many network applications. It allows, he said, on-site engineers to adjust systems to unique needs. The applications, therefore, may be as unlimited as the purposes that on-site engineers require.

"I'd say the adoption today is a small fraction of what we anticipate for the years ahead," MacCleery observed. "These are powerful new technologies that enable the industry to solve tough problems. They are not 'well-established' technologies."

The potential applications of electronic networks on wind farms are so varied and diverse that it is hard to ennumerate. "Most of the major established wind turbine OEMs are National Instruments customers," MacCleery said.

The networks, both wireless and hardwired, are being put to work on wind (and solar) projects around the world. By gathering and analyzing real-time data, operators can test and validate high-performance components like gears and generators. With multiple sensors in the network, conditions can be monitored.

With embedded sensors and networks, blade performance can be checked and adjusted. Severe weather or seismic events that alter the relationship between foundations and towers can be recognized. When operators have the ability to respond immediately to such conditions, they have the opportunity to increase their projects' performance.

In concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, networks can be used to track and identify the ideal sun exposure and to monitor environmental impacts. For photovoltaic solar, the sensor system is even more potentially valuable. The sensors can be used to measure and guide the panel manufacturing process and can then be used to test and monitor details of panel performance.

Spanish wind developer Iberdrola Renewables has developed a predictive maintenance program for the turbines in its wind projects. Siliken Renewable Energy has increased their solar panels' output with an automated production line test system. Test data on Wavebob Ltd.'s wave energy device has become more detailed by the inclusion of NI reconfigurable hardware.

"This technology is going to be the big tool for advancing the state of the art," Brian MacCleery said. "A lot of business pressures are going to drive the advance of networked sensor technology," he added. For renewable energies, "There are lots of different emerging technologies that are moving out to the field to solve business problems."