GE Developing Wind Blades That Could Be the “Fabric” of Our Clean Energy Future

  GE Developing Wind Blades That Could Be the “Fabric” of Our Clean Energy

  *New manufacturing approach could reduce blade production costs by up to
  *Would make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government
  *Will pave the way to longer blades that exceed 130 meters

Business Wire

NISKAYUNA, N.Y. -- November 28, 2012

In a move that could put wind energy on equal economic footing with
traditional fossil fuels, GE (NYSE: GE), Virginia Polytechnic Institute &
State University (Virginia Tech), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
(NREL), will begin work on a project that could fundamentally change the way
wind blades are designed, manufactured and installed.

With most of the cost of electricity for wind tied up in the initial capital
investments made in the wind turbines themselves, new technology advancements
that reduce these costs could substantially lower the overall cost of wind

“GE’s weaving an advanced wind blade that could be the fabric of our clean
energy future,” said Wendy Lin, a GE Principal Engineer and leader on the U.S.
Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) project.
“The fabric we’re developing will be tough, flexible, and easier to assemble
and maintain. It represents a clear path to making wind even more cost
competitive with fossil fuels.”

According to GE, this new blade design could reduce blade costs 25%-40%,
making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.

GE’s research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be
wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be
tensioned around ribs which run the length of the blade and specially designed
to meet the demands of wind blade operations. Conventional wind blades are
constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier and more labor and
time-intensive to manufacture.

Advancements in blade technology will help spur the development of larger,
lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. Current
technology doesn’t easily allow for construction of turbines that have rotor
diameters exceeding 120 meters because of design, manufacturing, assembly, and
transportation constraints. Wider, longer wind blades are tougher to move and
maneuver, and molds which form the clamshell fiberglass structure cost
millions of dollars to acquire. GE’s new fabric-based technology would all but
eliminate these barriers.

With this new approach to making wind blades, components could be built and
assembled on site, meaning design engineers no longer have to concern
themselves with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Taken together,
these improvements will help reduce start-up costs and the cost of
wind-generated electric in general.

It’s estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20% wind power in the
U.S., wind blades would need to grow by 50% -- a figure that would be
virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints imposed by current
technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable.

“Developing larger wind blades is the key to expanding wind energy into areas
we wouldn’t think of today as suitable for harvesting wind power. Tapping into
moderate wind speed markets, in places like the Midwest, will only help grow
the industry in the years to come,” Lin went on to say.

The use of fabrics to reduce weight and provide a cost-effective cover dates
back to the World War I era, when it was used on airplanes. Over the years
fabric has proved to be rugged and reliable and GE has already begun using
this spaceframe/tension fabric design in the construction of wind towers for
better aesthetics, cost, and protection.

The $5.6M ARPA-E project will span three years. GE’s blade architecture will
be built to achieve a 20 year life with no regular maintenance to tension
fabrics required.

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