All images courtesy of GE.

GE's New 'UFO' Dome Promises to Make Wind Turbines More Powerful

A new dome-shaped add-on to wind turbines may help them generate more power and bring construction costs down in the process.

Jun 5 2015, 8:58pm

All images courtesy of GE.

A new dome-shaped add-on to wind turbines may help them generate more power and bring construction costs down in the process. GE has installed its experimental new cleantech, called the EcoROTR, on a wind turbine in the California desert outside the city of Tehachapi.

GE says its "UFO-looking technology" (the company's words) will increase the amount of electricity generated by a turbine it's installed on by 3 percent. More importantly, perhaps, it will allow giant wind turbines to be built with significantly shorter blades, and cut costs by up to 25 percent.

It's still an experimental project in the R&D stages, but GE assures me that it will be cost-effective, and holds major promise for commercial energy production. Plus, the company is right; the thing's aesthetic sits squarely in the tradition of space-age tech.

Michael Bowman, GE's Sustainable Energy Advanced Technology leader, explained in an email how it works. He says there are three major benefits of the EcoROTR:

"First, it can be considered a 'wind diversion' device," he told me. "The dome that will be installed at the center of the turbine will divert wind from the center, where wind is not effectively converted into torque, to locations further out on the blades where the wind is converted efficiently. The diversion of wind enables an AEP (Annual Energy Production) increase for the wind turbine."

Secondly, the dome "can enable larger rotor diameters: Once the dome is installed, a portion of the blades will be 'hidden' from the wind. The section of the blade that is hidden from the wind no longer needs to be designed as an airfoil but rather a simple structural member. Because of this we can now mount the blades at a radial location out from the center equal to the distance the dome is covering."

"Essentially, we will be able to use a blade that would normally be for a 100m rotor and mount it out 10m from the center, as an example, and now have a 120m rotor," he said.

Still here? Well, there's one more serious benefit:

"The third benefit is in transportation logistics: Since shorter blades can now be used for a larger diameter rotor, we can now build larger diameter machines, and capture more wind energy, in more remote/difficult locations," Bowman told me.

GE is betting that the wind turbine UFO dome will eventually help allow wind turbines to become a more elastic technology, and to expand to new, previously prohibitively expensive regions.

"This technology give turbine designers new degrees of freedom," Bowman said. "It can allow for larger turbine designs which offer more value to the customers or allow turbines to be installed in more difficult locations... Enabling larger and less location-constrained wind turbine design will allow for continued renewable penetration into the power markets."

Which is good news. The US Department of Energy recently released a report that detailed the vast, untapped wind-friendly regions just waiting to be turbine'd across the nation. If it works, tech like this could speed the process.