The Future of Green Energy Is Comically Large Wind Turbines

Building a few gigantic wind turbines is more efficient than building many smaller ones, scientists say.
August 30, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: MingYang Smart Energy

Chinese renewable energy infrastructure company MingYang Smart Energy just announced it is building an 800-foot-tall offshore wind turbine, the largest in the world.

The colossal MySE 16.0-242 is a behemoth, with 387-foot blades that traverse nearly half a million square feet (around the size of 10 football fields). Most interesting about this big-ass turbine, however, is that, alone, it can create more power than many smaller wind turbines combined. Scientists and companies increasingly believe that a key to creating more efficient wind turbines is to simply make the turbines themselves positively gigantic.

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The Department of Energy released a report Monday finding that turbines like MingYang’s are likely the future of wind energy, and that over the next decade turbines are going to get larger.

“Back in 2010, no turbines in the United States employed rotors that were 115 meters (380 feet) in diameter or larger,” the DOE wrote. “In 2020, 91 percent of newly installed turbines featured such rotors. The average rotor diameter in 2020 was about 125 meters (410 feet)—longer than a football field.”

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Image: Department of Energy

Eric Lantz, group research manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), also says large turbines are the future of wind energy. 

“The fewer turbines you put up per unit of energy in general results in a lower cost of energy,” Lantz said. 

Having co-authored a study on wind turbine size for NREL in 2015, Lantz says taller turbines are more efficient than shorter ones in a few different ways: They reach higher-quality winds and surpass obstructions like mountains, hills, trees, or buildings that would otherwise limit the volume and speed of breezes that a turbine can access. 

“As you get higher above ground, you get into better resource quality,” Lantz said. “Surface obstructions that slow the wind down, the higher you get above those, the more you get into free-flowing wind.” 

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Wind speeds also increase substantially with altitude: Lantz’s own research found that moving from 80 to 160 meters sees wind speeds increase from 1 to 1.5 meters per second. Faster winds generate more energy, so taller turbines are generally more efficient than shorter ones. 

The MySE 16.0-242 boasts 16 megawatts of power, nearly 10 times the mean capacity of U.S. turbines, and is capable of powering 20,000 homes on its own over its 25-year service life. That’s 45 percent more than MingYang’s now second-largest turbine, the MySE 11.0-203, and enough to eliminate more than 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation, the company claims

“The launch of our new largest wind turbine, MySE 16.0-242, is an apt illustration of the three essential drivers to technology evolution—demand, combination and iteration,” Qiying Zhang, president and chief technology officer of Ming Yang said in a press release

Not all turbine locations are created equal, though: tops of hills, open plains and waters and tunnel-like gaps between and within mountain ranges are all ideal spots for turbines, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). In the US, where wind farms are often sited in vast, open prairies with little in the way, larger turbines aren’t worth the cost, Lantz says. “The most wind-rich regions of the country generally show an economic preference for the lowest considered tower height,” his report says, noting that higher turbine heights make more of a difference for energy generation east of the Rocky Mountains.

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West of the Rockies, taller turbines aren’t always worth the extra upfront expense: Though wind turbine prices are dropping across the board (now hovering around $750 per kilowatt of energy they generate), taller wind turbines require larger volumes of raw materials, both for their larger size and for the extra material required to provide structural reinforcement to keep them standing. Countries in Northern Europe, for example, where land for wind farms is more expensive, stand to gain more from bigger turbines than the US does, he notes. 

Regardless, from a logistical standpoint, it’s generally better to plant fewer turbines than more, Lantz says, because each one requires hurdles in siting, maintenance and management: Looking for one ideal spot for a massive turbine is easier than looking for a large swath of land to plant dozens of them, and repairing a single turbine, with one set of parts, is easier than repairing many.

“The fewer moving parts you have, the fewer possibilities of failure,” Lantz said. “Reducing the number of machines that you have to maintain and service can provide an opportunity for operations maintenance cost savings.” 

Since 2012, the average turbine in the US has hovered around 280 feet, the EIA reports, a height that was hard to come by just a few years before. The average size of offshore turbines, like the MySE 16.0-242, has grown by 3.4 times since 2000, and will likely continue to grow. 

Turbines will eventually reach a point where they can’t get any bigger, says Lantz, who predicts that at a certain altitude, they risk intercepting air routes and will require permitting from agencies like the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration. At which point, the administrative hurdle won’t be worth the effort. For now, the MySE holds the title of tallest turbine, but it likely won’t be that way for long as manufacturers across the sector innovate upward, he says. It’s a booming industry, one full of players who are all, literally, racing to the top.

“We still believe that it is gonna top out eventually, people have kind of given up on making predictions on precisely when that might occur,” he says. “Even those of us that do it every day, we don't know what the future will hold.” 

Renewable energy blogs quickly lauded the turbine on Wednesday as demonstrating clean energy’s potential for scalability. China, for example, has set its sights on carbon neutrality by 2060. The Biden Administration, for its part, is aiming to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. Reaching these metrics will require scaling up rapidly. Maybe part of the way we do it is with huge, huge wind turbines.