The price of wind power may soon compete with conventional fossil fuels, according to researchers in the United States. Engineers are fitting wind turbines with sensors to extend and increase their efficiency by optimizing how rotor blades adjust to changing wind patterns. Ben Gruber has more.
STORY: The measurements taken inside this wind tunnel could hold the key to making wind power a viable, cost effective energy source in the future. Professor Doug Adams and a team of engineers from Vanderbilt University have fitted these wind turbines with sensors. He says he wants to hear the turbines talk to each other. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOUG ADAMS, PROFESSOR OF CIVIL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING AT VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We put sensors in the blades. These are called inertial sensors. They are like the sensors in your steering wheel but they are just a lot more sensitive than that. We use that sensor to track the motion, to do motion tracking of the blade but monitor also what we call the dynamic response. So every time a blade moves we are monitoring it and that tells us something about that conversation that is happening from one turbine to the next." That conversation, says Adams, could give his team clues on how the wake effect of one turbine influences the performance of another. He says the changes in a single turbines' efficiency due to wake effect is minute, but in a wind farm that has 100 turbines those tiny changes could add up significantly. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOUG ADAMS, PROFESSOR OF CIVIL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING AT VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We think we can lower the cost of maintenance by two to three cents per kilowatt hour. That is a game changer from standpoint of the viability of wind energy. It becomes absolutely competitive with the fossil fuels that we rely on today, without subsidies it starts to become cost competitive." Using computer algorithms, Adams and his team process the data and use it to generate models and adjust the rotors of a turbine to compensate for the wake effect and increase its efficiency. Even more promising, he says, is that these tiny real-time adjustments can significantly decrease the fatigue load on a turbine and extends its lifespan. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOUG ADAMS, PROFESSOR OF CIVIL AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING AT VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So if we eliminate or reduce those fatigue loads we can make them last for much longer. So instead of 15 years it is lasting 25 years." Adams says his models will increase the productivity of established wind farms while helping design future farms that produce more electricity with fewer turbines, another piece of the puzzle, he says, that will ultimately drive down the cost of wind energy.