How self-repairing turbines could change wind energy

Wind Turbine

(Tom Corser/Creative Commons)

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Self-repairing wind turbines could forever alter the economy of energy. However, it needs the funding to get there.     

While a report from The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows wind energy is on the rise in the United States, proposed cuts to the Department of Energy budget cuts could deal a significant blow.

The Global Wind Energy Council released a Global Wind Statistics report in April 2016 for wind energy by country in 2015. The report ranked the United States second in wind energy at 74,471 megawatts — behind only China. However, pushback from the House of Representatives under the Trump Administration could cause the United States to lose that prestigious place.

Thus far, attempts to undermine the budget of the Department of Energy have proved unsuccessful. According to a Science Magazine article, the House of Representatives under the Trump administration proposed on June 27, 2017, for the 2018 budget starting on Oct. 1 to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy (ARPA-E). The proposed budget did not go through, due to a lack of support from the Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.), who lead the Senate Committee on Appropriations that issued the fiscal year 2018 budget, according to a Science Magazine article, stood up to this to say “this is not what we are going to do.”

In a bipartisan effort, the GOP-controlled Senate fought back against the budget the House proposed in June with a bill on July 18 to actually increase basic research funding of the ARPA-E by 8%. ARPA-E projects include the Metacapacitors for LED Lighting at the City University of New York (CUNY) Energy Institute and Temperature-Regulated Batteries at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.

    “…that is not what we are going to do.”

While the Senate has pushed back against cuts that could threaten clean energy innovation this past July, wind energy has a long way to go. The wind energy sphere is a “material intensive industry,” according to Dr. Stephen Hsu of George Washington University’s Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.

Wind turbines present an issue of cost effectiveness to repair. Hsu explained that, in simple terms, it’s not exactly appealing to need to fix turbines with propellers 200 to 300 feet in the air.

This means, according to Hsu, one of the biggest deterrents for a business to purchase wind turbines is damage caused by the external environment.

Dr. Stephen Hsu
Dr. Stephen Hsu 

In the early 2000’s, there was a huge push for wind turbines, and now some of those wind turbines are coming up on the expiration of their 20-year warranties. These potential repairs are a turnoff to investing in wind energy. To tackle the challenge presented by environmental and age-related damage to turbines, Hsu’s lab is focusing on technology involving cell healing for blade repair.

Hsu said he thought, “maybe we can make the need for repair much less,” and that would reduce the risks of purchasing owning and operating wind turbines. So, Hsu created a wind energy consortium at GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus. His team is currently putting research efforts into microtechnology, and his lab is focusing on technology involving cell healing for blade repair.

In a 2010 GW Today article, Rachel Muir wrote about how “many of the new materials required to revolutionize the wind turbine industry will be engineered at the nanoscales.” Revolutionizing the industry will be crucial in order to get businesses on board with buying wind turbines, and self-repairing turbines could be the innovation that builds the bridge toward a cleaner future over the economic gap.

“It’s not science fiction. It is actually feasible microtechnology,” Hsu said, yet “it’s kind of a risk, because it’s untested.”

“…it’s not science fiction, it is actually feasible microtechnology.”

Risky though it may be, companies have shown interest in the proposal. The 11 companies of the wind energy consortium, including ARI wind, Generation Energy, and Viryd, contributed more than $1 million to support research of the technology.

However, even with corporate funding, government support remains the key factor that could make wind energy boom. Katherine Dykes of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory wrote in her paper, “Enabling the SMART Wind Power Plant of the Future Through Science-Based Innovation,” that “the scenario we projected in the study relies on scientific innovation and thus there is a dependency on research funding.”

Hsu explained how, globally, wind energy is on the rise. Thus, if funding for the Department of Energy decreases significantly under the Trump administration, then in terms of wind energy, “after four or eight years, we could be way behind Europe,” he said.

Nuclear physicist and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz called the proposed budget “a retreat from our nation’s commitment to clean energy research,” according to a press release from the National Treasury Employees Union from May 26 this year. He went on to say the House’s proposed budget “would put us behind China and Europe, blunting our competitive edge in a multi-trillion-dollar developing clean energy global market.”

The House and the Senate remain locked in conflict. While the Senate voted in July on the bill to increase ARPA-E funding, the House wants to get rid of the agency altogether.

 “…after four or eight years, we could be way behind Europe.”

Still, Hsu is unswayed by the economic circumstances. “Wind energy will rise,” he said. It’s not a question of whether or not wind energy will expand ahead, it’s a question of whether the United States will invest in it.

“We have a lead,” Hsu said. “Why waste it?”

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