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Fabric-Covered Blades Could Make Wind Turbines Cheaper and More Efficient

January 2, 2013

A new design that calls for wrapping architectural fabric around metal wind turbine blades—instead of the traditional fiberglass—could be the latest revolution in dramatically reducing the cost of wind-produced power.

That’s the focus of a new project that partners NREL with General Electric (GE) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. Together, they are rethinking the way wind blades are designed, manufactured, and installed.

The new blade design could reduce blade costs 25% to ­40%, which could make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies, according to a recent GE news release. The focus of the research will center around using architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone.

Fabric would then be tensioned around the “ribs,” which run the length of the blade and are specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations. Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which are generally heavier and more labor- and time­-intensive to manufacture.

“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,” said Wendy Lin, a GE principal engineer and leader on DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-­E) project.

NREL’s role in the effort will be to offer laboratory testing support once a prototype blade is ready, said NREL’s Scott Hughes, who oversees Test Methods for Research and Development at the National Wind Technology Center. The $5.6 million ARPA-­E project is planned to span three years.

“This is a new approach (through ARPA-E), so we do not have a history in the development of this specific technology,” Hughes said.

The hope for the new blade technology will be to help encourage the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. The new approach to making wind blades would also reduce the often-pricey capital investment that is associated with installing a wind turbine as components could be built and assembled onsite, meaning design engineers would no longer face hassles with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Another bonus: the blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20-year life span and runs without regular maintenance to the tension of the fabric. 

GE says it’s estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20% wind power in the United States, wind blades would need to grow in size by 50%. That goal would be virtually impossible—taking into account the size constraints imposed by current technology—but, lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable, the company has said.

For more information, see the GE news release.

—Alexsandra Lemke