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grand challenge wind December

A recent Science article, written by a team of wind energy researchers led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), invited the scientific community to address three grand challenges in the physical sciences that will drive the innovation needed for wind to continue to contribute to the electricity grid as a low cost energy source.

1. Improving the understanding of the wind resource and flow in the region of the atmosphere where wind power plants operate.

As wind turbines increase in size and height to capture more energy, and as wind power plants with many turbines spread out over greater areas and longer distances, there is a need to understand the dynamics of moving air mass and its interactions with the land and turbines at these heights and scales. Major gaps exist in our knowledge of wind flows in complex terrain and varying atmospheric conditions. We need to model these conditions more accurately, so that the operation of large-scale wind power plants can be most productive, cost-effective, and controllable.  

2. Addressing the structural and system dynamics of the largest rotating machines in the world.

Wind turbines are now the largest flexible, rotating machines in the world. Blade lengths routinely exceed 80 meters and towers rise well above 100 meters. As these machines continue to get larger, heavier, and operate under increasing structural loads, new materials and manufacturing processes are needed to address emerging issues of scalability, transportation, structural integrity, and end-of-useful-life recycling of materials.

3. Designing and operating wind power plants to support and foster grid reliability and resiliency.

The electric power grid of the future is likely to be profoundly different than that of today. It is expected to see high levels of variable wind and solar power. Maintaining a functional, efficient and reliable grid will require such power providers to be predictable, controllable, and able to provide, not just power, but essential and stabilizing grid services. The path to the future requires integrated system research at the intersections of atmospheric physics, wind turbine dynamics, plant control, and grid operation.

While progress in the physical sciences is essential to drive innovation, lower costs, and achieve smooth integration with grid, environmental factors must also be taken into consideration for wind power expansion. To be successful, wind expansion must be accomplished responsibly and minimize its intrusion on the ecological landscape. We believe that investments in science and interdisciplinary research in these areas will reveal pathways to acceptable solutions.

Accordingly, WETO invests in projects that address siting and environmental issues. Such projects include those that seek to characterize and understand the impact of wind on wildlife. Others support scientific research that enables innovation and development of cost-effective technologies to minimize wildlife impacts at land-based and offshore wind plants.

Other projects supported by WETO include research, development, and information dissemination activities aimed at understanding how wind energy can be sited to minimize local impact, while providing economic benefit to the communities in which they operate and to the nation overall.

By investing in science, research, and technology development, and rallying the scientific communities around the physical and environmental, and developmental challenges, WETO hopes for wind to reach its full potential as an environmentally sustainable source of power in the United States.

For more information, read about NREL’s grand challenges and the international work that formed their basis. To learn more about WETO’s wind energy research, see the DOE wind energy website.