Mark Jonkhof Talks Wind Energy Sustainability

Hello world! My name is Arin Lastufka, and I’m a student in this year’s  A-Course, as part of the Edison Engineering Development Program here at GE’s Global Research Center. I’m on my first rotation in the Combustion Systems’ Emissions and Fuel Flex Lab, which is a long-winded way of saying that I get paid to burn interesting fuels. We primarily work for GE’s Energy and Aviation businesses and test combustor components. However, in a recent A-Course lecture, I got to step out of the combustion realm and consider another method of producing usable energy: wind turbines.

This particular morning, we got to sit down with Mark Jonkhof, the business leader for wind at Global Research. He gave us a high-level, business-focused talk that was much more conversational than a typical engineering lecture, leaving us free to jump in with questions about energy costs, markets, sound challenges, and new materials.

Some major points included the enormous growth in the wind turbine market in the past ten years, system size and quantity philosophies for various regions, and the push to design for a “park” of wind turbines instead of maximizing the output of a single machine.

I talked to Mark afterward in his office, and he told me a little more about himself. He’s been here in Niskayuna for three months, having moved his family from the Netherlands, where he supported the GE Wind business in Germany. “The business side is all about deliverables,” he told me. “At the research center, I have more time to think and strategize.”

He appreciates the opportunity to work on long-term projects, implementing large changes with wide impact. This concern for significant impact motivated his career switch to the wind industry, eight and a half years ago. “It’s young, with great growth potential. There is a real opportunity to change the direction of the industry.”

We discussed some of the technical challenges in wind power technology. In modern wind’s infancy, Mark pointed out the focus was reliability of the turbines. “We’ve fixed nearly all of those problems.” Now, as wind turbine blades get longer, producing more power per turbine, “we need to realize that bigger isn’t necessarily better.” As the blade lengths increase, energy capture increases by a power of two – but the blade masses and loading increase by a power of three. This is the challenge that GE Wind is now meeting with new technologies. For example, they are looking at wind turbine control software and sensors, ,fully understanding the interaction of aerodynamics, structures, and materials, and integrating turbines fully into park systems. “We don’t want to make the biggest turbine. Our goal is to lower the cost of wind energy to compete in a subsidy-free world.”

Throughout our conversation, we kept returning to this goal: sustainable wind energy in an unsubsidized future. Currently, government wind incentives mean that wind farms can be profitable for their operators.  As these incentives expire (for example, the United States’ production tax credit ceases at the end of 2012), the cost of producing wind energy must be low enough that it is still profitable. Application of new technology to wind turbines and farms will drive down cost and enable competitiveness in the future, said Mark. “That’s why I’m here.”

In his spare time, Mark enjoys spending time with his family, photography, and helping to coach his sons in soccer. He welcomes the chance to contribute to the A-Course curriculum. “I get a lot of energy out of interacting with young, energetic people,” Mark noted. “I see it as an opportunity to bring enthusiasm to the project. In addition, we’re always looking to draw talent to wind.”