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Big Wind
Jeremy Faludi, 26 Apr 05

MIT's Technology Review has a recent article on the growth of wind power--not just in terms of global market share, but the size of the turbines themselves:

"Today’s largest commercial wind turbine has a blade span of 104 meters and produces up to 3.6 megawatts of electricity—enough to power 1,000 average U.S. households. But in February, Repower Systems of Germany switched on a demonstration turbine near Hamburg that produces five megawatts and has a blade span of 126 meters. And General Electric is developing a design for a 70-meter blade, which translates to a total blade span topping 140 meters...

" 'The economics work better as the turbines get bigger—and the name of the game is economics'... The goal of industry and federal researchers is to create wind farms that produce electricity for about three cents per kilowatt-hour, down from about 4.5 cents today; that would beat the cost of fuel for the most efficient new gas-fired power plants—currently about 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour...

"Still, relying on superbig machines is not without risk... The bigger the turbines get, the higher the cost if one of them fails. 'Sooner or later, they are going to make one too big...and they are going to lose their shirt.' "

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>>Sooner or later, they are going to make one too big<<

Yes, big centralized power stations reached a limit where you started to see diseconomies of scale (see Lovins et al: Small is Profitable).

Also, anyone know what price natural gas is assumed to be for the 3.5c/kWh figure? Gas is currently over $7/mmbtu and climbing...


Posted by: John Norris on 26 Apr 05

Good question, John. Can't find a good answer right now, but these graphs may be useful if you find out when the cost per kWh assumptions were made.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 26 Apr 05

That's the advantage of wind/solar/etc.. The prices will stay the same (and go down as technology gets better) while fossil fuels' price will go up with time.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 27 Apr 05

I am all for renewable technologies like wind and solar. I think they're vital! But I am leery of large companies that claim new technology will make things cheaper for end users. There are usually trade-offs, and then there's the fact that Utilities are organized to make a profit and don't seem inclined to pass the savings along to customers unless it's legislated. New technologies and economies of scale haven't made music any cheaper. Again, not to discourage the development of new and more responsible technology, but let's be realistic about the economic implications. Wind and solar only lock in costs for whoever owns the equipment.

Posted by: Alex on 28 Apr 05

Wind generators are great. I'm all for them.

I do have to laugh, however, when certain groups that you'd expect to come down on the side of the environment are heard lamenting the fact that someone wants to plant a wind farm on their favorite ridge line. Sorry folks, you can't just drop a wind farm anywhere and still be able to make money on it.

Even when it comes to something as apparently harmless and clean as wind turbines, NIMBY still prevails...

Posted by: Brian St. Pierre on 28 Apr 05

There was an article that I thought was posted on WC that described a new design that included multiple propellers on one span. The end result was 6 times the power output of a pinwheel design assuming the span of the new design is the same as the blade span of the pinwheel.

Bottom line, we'll probably come up with a better design that gets us to that low cost per kwh without having to go giant.

Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 28 Apr 05

I'm about as pro-green energy as anyone can be, but am I the only one who finds the Super-Size, centralized mindset toward wind to be antithetical to true sustainability? I'm sorry, but the image of blades the length of 747s spinning on landscapes across the world, killing wildlife and spoiling the aesthetic environment, is not a progressive vision for me.

This approach is from the old-school mega-mindset side of the power industry-- the side that cut its teeth on huge coal and nuclear power plants with dense tangles of power-line corridors running in all directions. They like to centralize and 'gargantuize' as much as they can-- it's the only language they speak: large, bureaucratic systems and fat, monolithic structures.

Instead, think Micro, DIY, and OpenSource-- just like in other tech arenas. Real alternative energy is the decentralized, local, distributed systems, like on-site solar, wind, fuel cells, and micro-hydro. These systems are already booming and the cost/efficiency ratio is increasing dramatically. Much of it is here and ready to go-- so why are we letting mega-scale wind farms pose as some cool solution, when we know they're not.

Amory Lovins recent book "Small Is Profitable" is a great manifesto on all this.


Posted by: Will on 1 May 05

Actauly the bigger the windmill the slower the blades spin and the less bird kills happen or so data I have found says.

Also as far as economy of size goes remember to keep the transmission losses low they like to transmit on 250kvolt lines.. a 1 meg windmill would only generate 4 amps on a 250 kw line... and the 5 1 meg windmills would take up alot more space and airspace then the 1 5 meg unit. They also cost more and require more maintenace then it too.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 May 05



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