Wind turbine blades currently have some challenges that impact their cost effectiveness. First, most wind blades are made of fiberglass, and the molds to manufacture these blades cost millions of dollars to acquire. Transporting the massive manufactured blades also poses a challenge as they cannot be assembled on site. Furthermore, fiberglass places limitations on the size of the rotor diameters, which means the turbines are smaller and heavier so they are less able to capture wind at lower wind speeds in places such as the US Midwest.
The US Department of Energy's advanced research projects agency (ARPA-E) project aims to address these limitations by researching and developing architectural fabrics in lieu of conventional fiberglass. These tough, flexible fabrics would be tension-wrapped around a metal frame and specially designed to meet wind blade operations’ demands as well as allow for easy maintenance. The project will span three years and be comprised of a team from US electrics company GE, Virginia Tech University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
If successful, these advancements in blade technology will enable larger, lighter turbines that allow tapping previously unsuitable moderate wind speed markets. The new approach also has the potential to overcome earlier manufacturing and transportation limitations since the wind turbine components can be built and put together on site. According to GE, this new blade design could reduce blade costs 25%-40%, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.
Expanding wind capabilities and lowering its costs as an energy source represents forging a course towards a clean energy future.