Saturday, November 17, 2012

The economics of large wind turbines

Wind turbines are constantly growing in size, especially as global wind energy sectors plans to move offshore where more frequent and much more powerful winds should account for lot bigger wind energy production as compared to wind farms on land.

Today, the largest installed wind turbines have a capacity of 5-6 MW. The designs for new wind turbines plan to make them even bigger, even up to 20 MW in capacity. Are these large wind turbines economically viable given the currently available wind power technologies? The right answer to this question appears to be "no, not yet".

According to the 2011 study by the EU project UpWind wind turbines with the nameplate capacity of 20 MW would be approximately 15-20 percent more expensive as compared to today's average sized turbines. In order to decrease the costs of these gigantic wind turbines wind power industry requires completely new level of engineering starting with solutions such as intelligent wind turbine blades (with the special emphasis on aeroelastic design methods and new sensor systems) as well as implementing laser technology to precisely measure wind conditions in order to achieve maximum efficiency.

Since these new technologies are yet to develop many energy experts believe that the global wind industry should, at least for now, set its sight on small wind turbines, the ones with the nameplate capacity of 10-100 KW. These smaller wind turbines have not only edge in costs compared to huge wind turbines but they can also be deployed in many different places unlike huge wind turbines that are mostly planned for large offshore wind farms. Large offshore wind farms are connected with huge construction costs (they are up to three times more expensive as compared to wind projects on land).

The largest wind turbines installed today are 5-6 MW.

The energy market for small wind turbines is growing all the time, especially in China where around 1.75 million Chinese get their electricity from small wind turbines. In 2011 China installed around 150,000 small wind turbines.

These small wind turbines are also becoming increasingly popular in United States, even despite the uncertainty related with the prolongation of wind energy tax credit that is set to expire at the end of 2012.

Small wind market is one of the fastest growing renewable energy markets in the world. Of course, the future will likely belong to large wind turbines but for now small wind seems to be the best pick for wind energy investors.