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business models, strategies and technologies

From bigger to better – an alternative direction for wind turbines?

Rethinking wind turbine engineering to provide the flexibility to meet real off-grid needs

The bigger the better?

The whole idea of modern wind turbines lies in the renowned techno-mantra of “the bigger the better”, as explained here by (for example) the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. That’s basically because wind turbines need to be large (read: very large) to exploit the power of the wind effectively — there are stronger air currents (with fewer disturbing influences) higher up in the air compared to down near the ground.

As a result, hub heights, rotor diameters and rotor swept areas have grown by about 600% since 1998–1999, according to the EERE. At the same time as wind turbines are growing in size, so too are the infrastructure requirements needed to enable and support wind energy operations. These are never shown in the evocative PR images of pristine white towers rising magically from the ground, almost as if these just naturally emerge from the earth.

The reality is that any big wind turbine or wind farm requires the construction and installation of massive static infrastructure a long way from where the energy is actually needed. This infrastructure includes vast amounts of concrete and rebar for the foundations, with all the accompanying soil/rock disruption, and with huge-but-not-usually-discussed environmental impacts, both direct and indirect. Furthermore, any conventional (onshore) wind turbine is going to remain locked in the same place for decades, regardless of changing patterns of energy demand, climate conditions, global demographics and patterns of human activity.

Better instead of bigger

“Build it bigger” is the normal, go-to mindset in engineering, even though the gains are usually only incremental. There’s rarely much real innovation in continually, desperately stretching the scale of existing, known technology. You’re always teetering on the edge of what’s known to be possible right now, yet also know that the disproportionate costs of pushing this proverbial envelope will soon be rendered partially redundant by pretty much the same kind of incremental stretches made yet again next year – either by your own company, a competitor or some bright startup. This means such gains are inherently vulnerable – as are the benefits they provide.

 However, innovators do sometimes find different paths. You don’t always have to think new to think better.

Travelling different paths

  • Yes, there is global demand for sustainable energy, and huge wind turbines and wind farms will undoubtedly play a part in meeting that insatiable demand on the macro scale. But there are also big effectiveness gains to be had (as well as huge resource waste to be avoided) by matching the supply configuration to the specifics of real-world needs. Such installations may be smaller and relatively marginal in the bigger picture – but for the potential customer/user they’re often pivotal, and the knock-on resource savings can be massive.

I recently happened on a US company whose approach seems to epitomise such alternative, needs-centric thinking. Uprise Energy designs, manufactures and delivers mobile power stations driven by wind turbines that are almost toy-sized compared to mainstream designs focused on maximising output and economies of scale. The Uprise mobile power station design features a 10kW portable wind turbine that fits inside a standard 20-foot shipping container and can be towed to wherever it’s needed by an ordinary vehicle. Apparently it normally only takes about an hour to unpack and erect the wind turbine. More importantly, there’s no need for lengthy pre-installation wind studies or costly, time-consuming site preparation that requires lots of manpower and heavy equipment.

The point behind the Uprise Energy business model is (apparently) to enable electricity users to operate independently of power grids, and to focus on actual need rather than output. This leads the engineering in a completely different direction – in fact, towards configurations where it pays off to go smaller.

This is more than just niche marketing. Small doesn’t just mean simple, portable doesn’t mean primitive. With the right design insights and a stringent focus on meeting the exact practical needs of a particular group of users, it is also an effective, responsible use of limited raw materials and manufacturing resources, all of which are in limited supply.

In the Uprise business model there’s also a technical dimension that seems to mean greater operating efficiency, with software-driven electronic optimisation designed to make sure the relationship between rotor speed and wind speed generates maximum power under any given conditions. This kind of “design for responsiveness” is easier in smaller wind turbines, and makes it easier to deal with/exploit inconsistent/gusty wind conditions. Uprise makes a big deal out of the benefits of this proprietary programming, to the extent that they’ve even trademarked it as “Dance with the Wind™”

  • The value of flexibility

  • If the engineering mindset is able to shift the basic premise from wind turbine engineering’s traditional “the bigger the better” premise, this opens up opportunities for a “better instead of bigger” perspective as well as to asking the key question of “better for what?”. This in turn makes it much easier to focus on the exact contours of the particular requirement. Uprise proclaims it like this:

    Life saving to some, financially attractive to others, environmentally responsible for all

  • It seems Uprise Energy systems are optimised for the kinds of low wind speed conditions commonly found where people actually live and work – where the electricity is actually needed. Such needs usually fluctuate and change considerably over time. They are unlikely to remain unaltered over the service life of conventional fixed-mounted wind turbines.

  • It seems Uprise Energy systems are a good way to place responsible, less/non-polluting power generation installations conveniently near the point of actual demand. This makes them ideal for use in remote, difficult-to-access areas where energy availability – especially responsible, sustainable energy – can be limited or difficult. These are the kinds of areas that otherwise often have to rely on pollution-belching diesel generators and other less-than-ideal mashups to provide the electricity they need. This is particularly true for a vast range of temporary, project-based operating setups – like research or exploration facilities, all kinds of operations that take place off the beaten track, seasonal activities of any kind, disaster relief, emergency response centres, mobile bases and C2 facilities, etc.

  • It would also seem ideal for fluid, necessarily mobile setups that need reliable electricity but have to work off-grid, either because of urgency, or because there is no available (or remaining) power grid or other infrastructure to work from.

Harvesting the power of demand

A recent Stanford University research report points out how most of the world’s countries could meet all their business-as-usual energy needs by applying various combinations of wind, water, solar and energy storage. The 2022 study reckons that the resulting lower-cost energy and other benefits mean the required investment for transition would be paid off within about six years. The study also estimates that on a worldwide basis such an energy transition would create 28 million more jobs than it directly or indirectly caused to disappear.

There are a lot of opportunities to be had, and simplistic/jingoistic one-size-fits-all thinking (in wind turbine engineering or anywhere else) isn’t going to make the most of such apparently considerable commercial openings or the technical benefits.