Renewable energy sources make up 13% of the U.S. electric generation portfolio; the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that U.S. renewable electricity generation will grow to 18% by 2040; with wind overtaking hydro as the largest renewable source by then. Though solar has been growing faster year-over-year, the EIA Short-Term Energy Outlook projects that wind will add more absolute capacity between 2014 and 2016; 18 GW for wind compared with 9 GW of utility-scale solar.
The report Enabling Wind Power Nationwide was released by the Department of Energy in May and focuses on new technologies to expand wind energy in the U.S. The primary focus is on taller turbines and larger rotors to capture the more consistent and stronger winds at greater heights. Though there are technical and logistical challenges when raising hub heights from the standard 80 meters (262 feet) to 110 meters (360 feet) or more; this is an extension of existing technology rather than a fundamental technological innovation with how wind energy is collected and converted to electricity.
For this latest Future Friday post we’re going to look at a startup company that is trying to create a fundamental shift in how wind energy is generated. Vortex Bladeless is rethinking wind energy by doing away with the turbine altogether and harnessing the cyclical pattern of vortices that are formed by wind flowing around a tower. Vortex says their bladeless system can generate electricity for 40% less than standard turbine technology. According to the EIA land-based wind turbines already have one of the lowest Levelized Costs of Energy (LCOE), conventional or renewable, except for advanced combined cycle natural gas generation and geothermal (EIA 2015 Annual Energy Outlook). A further 40% reduction in LCOE would make the Vortex Bladeless technology the lowest cost electric generation technology overall.
The Vortex system achieves the cost efficiencies with an innovative, but simple design for harnessing wind energy. The main mast oscillates in the wind due to the vorticity effect; this oscillation force is transmitted through an elastic rod to drive a generator at the base of the system. According to Vortex Bladeless this design achieves cost efficiencies in a number of ways:
- 53% lower manufacturing costs – the blades and nacelle of a traditional wind turbine are eliminated. Further savings are achieved because the generator is at the base, obviating the need for an expensive mast that can hold the generator 300 – 400 feet in the air safely under high wind loads.
- 80% lower maintenance costs – the mast and elastic rod are magnetically coupled to the generation system, so there are no mechanical elements that can wear out, require lubrication, etc.
- Lower installation costs – the Vortex system is estimated to weigh 80% less than a conventional wind turbine, resulting in easier transportation and installation of the system. This also results in a foundation that is 50% smaller than a conventional turbine, which generates additional savings.
Traditional wind turbines have one advantage over the Vortex system, they are more efficient. The Vortex system is estimated to be 30% less efficient that a traditional turbine, but lower costs and the ability to put them closer together than traditional turbines compensates for this disadvantage.
Vortex began field testing a 6 meter scale prototype in 2014 and completed a successful round of crowd funding in June. The plans are to build a 13 meter system with an output of 4 kW in the next 12 months, and an industrial prototype that is 150 meters with a 1 MW output in the next 36 months.