Industrial wind turbines that can communicate with the grid are widely considered to be "smart." But what makes a turbine truly brilliant?
General Electric thinks it has the answer.
The company is rolling out a new turbine in its 2.5-megawatt series that features a range of remote sensors placed around the machine that can tell a developer every last detail about blade pitch, wind speed, output, and grid conditions in order to enhance turbine-to-turbine communication and forecast output changes 30 minutes in advance.
The advanced monitoring capabilities allow project owners to target problems faster, diagnose issues fully before a technician arrives, and isolate maintenance with fewer disruptions to the overall wind farm. The turbine can also host and communicate with an onsite storage system, which is currently GE's sodium Durathon battery that was designed for telecom applications.
In its effort to realize the "industrial internet" -- GE's take on the "internet of things" -- the company is putting sensors on nearly everything it produces. But brilliance doesn't just come from creating more data. It comes from managing that data and turning questions into targeted answers, said Minesh Shah, an engineering manager at GE who runs the team working on this "brilliant" wind turbine.
"On the wind side, there's a lot of data being generated. We are thinking not just about how we generate the data, but also how to turn that into information through unique dashboards. We run algorithms that help us spit out an answer. It's not so much about the data; it's how you use the data along with the analytics," said Shah.
In order to better manage that data across all its products, GE has recruited hundreds of engineers to help run its new software center in San Francisco. The company plans to invest nearly $1 billion in the center to develop new data management tools like the Grid IQ Insight platform it showcased last week at DistribuTECH.
The advanced controls allow for more efficient use of larger equipment. GE's new 2.5-megawatt turbine also features a bigger rotor (120 meters) and a taller hub height (up to 139 meters) than its current model, thus allowing project developers to take advantage of low-wind sites and land-constrained regions.
"You want to be able to get as much output out of that piece of land as possible. So when you think about forested regions, that higher hub height allows an increase in output," said Shah. He said the turbine is 25 percent more efficient than the current 2.5-megawatt model.
The company is making a splash by promoting its "industrial internet" concept for wind, but it's certainly not the only company developing turbines for medium- and low-wind sites. (Indeed, GE already has a machine for lower wind speeds. This model is its latest upgrade.)
In 2009, Siemens rolled out its 2.3-megawatt wind turbine with a 101-meter rotor designed for low-wind areas.
Nordex has had its 2.4-megawatt machine for low and medium wind speeds out in the field for a year. The device features lighter carbon fiber blades, a lighter nacelle, a 117-meter rotor, and a hub height of 91 meters. The company says the N117 is 20 percent more efficient than other similar-sized turbines.
"The pace of innovation is stunning," said Ralf Sigrist, president and CEO of Nordex USA. "These innovations are helping project developers and moving wind into a highly mature and highly competitive environment."
Vestas also has its newer V100 1.8-megawatt turbine featuring a 100-meter rotor. Last year, wind developer First Wind installed nineteen of the machines at its 34-MW Bull Hill wind project in Maine.
"It's the first application of a fairly new piece of technology with a higher hub height to make better use of an OK wind regime by using a more efficient turbine. That signaled a very important change in 2012 for the company and the industry," said Matt Kearns, vice president of business development at First Wind.
The technologies are shifting along with market dynamics. As the best project sites are taken and developers move to areas with less abundant wind, these emerging machines are becoming an important part of their toolkit. It's also preparing companies for a policy environment with fewer incentives, said GE's Shah.
"When we look ahead to a world where wind doesn't have a subsidy, how can we provide more output so that the cost of electricity is driven down? That's an important piece of this design," said Shah.