As America's largest wind farms age, a new wave of upgrades promises to increase effectiveness and efficiency, propelling the future of wind energy.

WindPowerIn 2017 alone, the U.S. added 7,017 megawatts of wind power capacity to country’s power grid. Just as significantly, wind energy production costs have dropped by two-thirds since 2009. With favorable federal tax incentives and increasingly advanced technologies behind it, it’s no surprise that wind is now the country’s largest source of renewable energy.

The rapid rise of wind power has lead to what’s been described as a “repowering” movement across the energy industry As their operators look to take advantage of the rise of wind power, wind farms across the U.S. are receiving a number of welcome improvements, including new blades and electronics. These refurbished facilities are enjoying greater productivity and efficiency than ever, helping the country usher in a golden age of renewable energy.

New and Improved

Aging wind power infrastructure is the primary driver behind repowering. A recent Energy Information Administration study found that 12 percent of wind turbines in the U.S. were installed before 2000. While they account for only 2 percent of the nation’s total wind electricity generating capacity, these older models are potentially slowing the output of the entire sector.

That’s why U.S.-based wind farm repowering projects accounted for over 2,100 megawatts of new energy in 2017. It’s also why even more wind farms will undergo major repowering this year. As PwC notes, “increased performance, efficiency and extended project lives could be achieved by replacing the older turbines with new and improved turbine technology.”

To that end, owners of wind farms that have operated for over a decade are choosing to revamp their assets with higher-efficiency turbines, innovative electronics, and lighter, longer blades that can sweep more wind with each rotation. OEMs like Siemens have introduced a number of breakthrough technologies to augment repowering such as new electric drives and control systems, blade tip extensions to boost energy production in low-wind regions, and aerodynamic improvements to blades.

Another major upgrade may involve compressed air energy storage solutions, which enable farms to store power until it needs to be used. Emerging technologies, like those being developed by SustainX, may even spark widespread change in the approach to renewables storage.

According to the MIT Technology Review, while traditional compressed air solutions require underground storage space, “SustainX’s system eliminates this problem because it can efficiently use above-ground storage tanks rather than caverns.”

This is exciting news for wind energy professionals. Compressed air energy storage costs about one-tenth of what battery storage costs, but it’s rarely been used due to the logistical problems posed by underground storage. These new compressed air storage solutions could effectively overcome these challenges, potentially creating considerable savings in the renewable energy sphere.

Repowering Results

There are clear performance benefits to repowering, but it also leads to quantitative savings, from new jobs to a higher ROI.

Companies like MidAmerican Energy, which has pledged a whopping $1 billion to restore wind turbines across Iowa, anticipate such payoffs in the short and long terms. By replacing blades and rotors on turbines, MidAmerican projects an increase in energy production of 19 to 28 percent. GE, the country’s most prominent wind turbine installer, backs up this estimate, claiming that a whole fleet’s output can increase by 25% from repowering efforts — and extend a turbine’s life by up to 20 years.

The American Wind Energy Association believes that wind power could supply as much as 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020, all while creating new jobs in construction, manufacturing, maintenance, and auditing. With the right improvements to their facilities, wind farm operators across the country stand to reap the benefits.

There are plenty of financial reasons to invest in modernization, as well. According to The U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, an average turbine’s output declines by 1.6% every year. If this statistic isn’t enough motivation for repowering, the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit incentivizes wind farm owners to invest in repowering projects.

The American Wind Energy Association believes that wind power could supply as much as 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020, all while creating new jobs in construction, manufacturing, maintenance, and auditing. With the right improvements to their facilities, wind farm operators across the country stand to reap the benefits.

Topics: energy

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