(Bloomberg) -- Makers of giant wind turbines are hoping that artificial intelligence can bring back some of the industry’s mojo.
While developers have spent $1.1 trillion on new wind farms over the past dozen years -- helping transform the global energy landscape with renewable power -- more money is going into new solar systems these days. Also, governments are phasing out subsidies, including programs in the U.S. that have offered $22 billion in tax breaks to turbine projects in the past 15 years.
To remain an attractive, lower-cost option for utilities, companies like Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Invenergy LLC are investing in technologies to squeeze more electricity from every propeller rotation. That’s no easy task. Modern turbines with blades that stretch 450 feet (137 meters) in the air already can twist and turn and spin faster or slower to adjust to ever-changing breezes. And they’re covered with sensors and control systems to make adjustments quickly.
But many still aren’t able to fully exploit weather and operational data in real time. For example, on wind farms with hundreds of turbines, the front wall of propellers creates a wake that reduces the efficiency for those behind. Making each unit more integrated with the rest could boost output as much as 15 percent, according WindWISDEM, an wind-industry software startup funded by venture capital firm YStrategies Corp.
“A machine -- instead of only relying on the wind speed and direction sensors on its own nacelle -- could learn the wind speed and direction that’s going to hit it soon from the other machines,” said Paul Veers, chief engineer for the U.S. government’s National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Most of the industry’s research is focused “around the same theme,” Veers said, “looking at the plant as a whole rather than letting each machine operate the best it can.”
Innovations will be needed for the next stage of growth in wind power, which accounted for a record 6.3 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. last year. Utilities are demanding that sources of renewable energy deliver more dependable flows to transmission grids. So, the industry is trying to use data analysis to narrow the efficiency gap in existing systems and better predict how much power they can supply to consumers before it’s actually needed.
“The grid likes certainly,” said Julia Attwood, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “If renewables can be more sure about their production, then that means they can supply more power because the grid operator can work that into their schedule for the day.”
Wind was the early king of renewable investments. But since 2010, solar projects have been getting the lion’s share, including $160.8 billion last year, second only to a record $179.3 billion in 2015 and almost half of what was spent on all clean-energy projects, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Wind turbines got $107.2 billion last year, down about 12 percent from 2016.
To be sure, land-based turbines still produce electricity more cheaply than solar panels, both of which have been stealing market share from aging coal and nuclear generators. In the U.S., wind-driven generators will supply more power than hydroelectric plants next year for the first time ever, the government’s Energy Information Administration forecast on Tuesday.
Wind projects in the U.S. cost on average $45 per megawatt hour to build and operate without subsidies, compared with $58 for solar, according to a BNEF analysis. But that advantage will slowly disappear by 2040 as solar panels become more efficient and manufacturing costs continue to decline.
Here’s how wind blades are getting smarter:
* Vestas, the largest maker of wind turbines, paid $100 million earlier this year for Utopus Insights Inc., a Valhalla, New York-based startup that grew out of the Smarter Energy Research Institute at International Business Machines Corp. Denmark-based Vestas says the deal provides access to technology that will help process data from turbines and boost output.
* Independent wind producer Invenergy is working with software maker NarrativeWave Inc., which develops computer algorithms that crunch years of operating data. Among other things, the analysis would help make turbines more reliable by predicting seasonal wind patterns, propeller performance and even the likelihood of equipment failures. “We have 10 years of data on thousands of turbines,” said John Majewski, vice president of asset management at Chicago-based Invenergy. “What these software systems do is just make it tremendously, tremendously easy.”
* Chicago-based Uptake Technologies Inc., a software producer, is working with Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s energy unit and Pattern Energy Group Inc. to boost the output of existing turbines, which rarely jives with design capacity because there are so many real-world variables that limit efficiency. “The goal eventually is to not only tell you that you’re under-performing, but then to correlate that to prior incidents and tell you why you’re under-performing,” said Sonny Garg, Uptake’s global managing director.
Wind-farm operators also can boost efficiency the old-fashioned way, by replacing older parts such as the turbine housing, hub or rotor. Companies including NextEra Energy Inc. have announced plans to upgrade parts of their fleets, according to BNEF.
Another way to boost output and reliability is better weather forecasting. Researchers at the Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working with private partners to better understand wind at something called the boundary layer, which stretches from the ground to almost 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) high. The average height of land-based wind turbines is 280 feet, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Using artificial intelligence, forecasters hope to recreate atmospheric conditions in fine detail with the goal of forecasting the power output of wind farms, according to Kevin Petty, chief science officer at Vaisala Oyj, a Finland-based company specializing in environmental measurement.
The push to make turbines even more efficient is “certainly about making wind as cheap as possible, particularly as the federal tax credits roll off,” said Amy Grace, an analyst at BNEF.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.