Fabric Wind Turbine Blade Design Offers Clean Energy

Today, conventional wind turbine blade designs use fiberglass, which is heavy and the manufacturing process is extremely hands-on and time intensive. A new approach using architectural fabrics could change the way blades are designed, manufactured and installed.

GE researchers, in partnership with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are exploring a new wind turbine blade design and manufacturing approach using architectural fabrics that could be wrapped around a metal space frame resembling a fishbone. It would fundamentally change the way blades are designed, manufactured and installed.

The new wind turbine blade design being explored could reduce blade costs 25% to 40%. With most of the cost of electricity for wind tied up in the initial capital investments made in the wind turbines themselves, this degree of cost reduction could make wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.

Advancements like this in wind turbine blade design and technology will also help spur the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. Current technology doesn’t easily allow for construction of turbines that have rotor diameters exceeding 120 meters because of design, manufacturing, assembly and transportation constraints. Wider, longer wind blades are tougher to move and maneuver, and molds that form the clamshell fiberglass structure cost millions of dollars to make. GE’s new fabric-based technology would all but eliminate these barriers.

With this new “fabric” approach, components could be built and assembled on site, meaning design engineers no longer have to concern themselves with manufacturing and transportation limitations. Taken together, these improvements will help reduce start-up costs and the cost of wind-generated electric in general.

It is estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20% wind power in the U.S., wind blades would need to grow in length by 50%—a figure that would be virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints imposed by current technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable.