A new generation of super-size wind farm could be on its way to a field near you. General Electric is developing wind turbines with blades longer than the tip-to-tip wingspan of a jumbo jet.
In a move likely to dismay activists who view wind farms as a blot on the landscape, the American company has taken the wraps off a project to develop power-generating windmills with blades of 70 metres – some 75% longer than the typical existing length of 40 metres.Longer blades can theoretically generate up to three times as much power, with a potential capacity of up to six megawatts a turbine. A large coal-fired power station in Britain typically produces around 2,000MW.
Super-size turbines have previously been seen as impractical because of their weight but GE’s new blades use hi-tech carbon composites of the sort used in aircraft engines. This replaces fibreglass, cutting the notional weight of each blade from 25 to 17 tonnes.
The development is part of a campaign by GE to highlight its push towards environmentally friendly products which it has called “ecoimagination”. At a technology day this week, it also discussed LED light sources and “smart” electricity meters which switch on household appliances when utility prices are low.
Lorraine Bolsinger, vice-president of GE’s ecoimagination division, was unapologetic about the aesthetics of giant windmills. “You can’t say no to everything,” she said, pointing out that there were also objections to nuclear and water-generated power. “The economics of longer wind turbines are going to be pretty compelling. If you can put them in places where they’re not eyesores, it’ll be a win-win situation.”
The new turbines are under laboratory development at GE’s research headquarters in upstate New York and are four to five years away from going into operation. They are designed to bend in breezy conditions, allowing them to operate in high winds and they are built in two parts, making them cheaper to ship. There was a hostile reaction yesterday from British campaigners who have fought wind farms on the grounds of their appearance, noise and economic viability. Angela Kelly, chairman of the pressure group Country Guardian, said she was “horrified” by jumbo jet-sized windmill blades and described the prospect as an “absolute disaster”. “Imagine the amount of concrete you’d need to put down for the foundations of a turbine of that size,” she said. Her group argues that wind farms still need back-up from traditional electricity sources and are an excessively expensive form of generation: “We resent having to pay to destroy our own countryside.”
Environmental lobbyists typically find themselves treading a delicate path on the subject of wind farms. Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said his charity favoured building wind farms off-shore wherever possible, although energy companies say this is typically more expensive and can pose hazards to birds and shipping. “If they’re on land, they should go through the planning system and they should be built away from beautiful landscapes,” said Mr Stafford, adding that he would not oppose super-sized blades in principle. “I can’t see that it would make a huge difference, although it might make them visible from further away.”
GE sees wind turbines as a huge business opportunity. In America, where they engender relatively little opposition, there are presently 7,500 in operation, a figure forecast to rise to 90,000 by 2025, helping to satisfy demand for power which is set to swell by 17% within a decade.
GE executives say that not all generation can be located off-shore and they suggest that wind farms are gaining in acceptance. “The world is changing a little bit as are attitudes towards this kind of technology,” said Ms Bolsinger.
Once regarded as an archetypal heavy industrial monolith, GE has become an advocate for action on climate change and is pumping increasing sums into green technology. The company announced it will spend $1bn (£488m) this year on research and development into cleaner technology, edging closer to a target of $1.5bn annually by 2010. The company has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 1% by 2012 and has joined the US Climate Action Partnership – a coalition of businesses including General Motors, BP America and PepsiCo – which is lobbying the White House to introduce mandatory caps on emissions.
Among GE’s other projects presented this week are household water desalination devices, low-cost solar panels and an elaborate form of “intelligent” domestic electricity meter that will be an option for developers of new American homes from the end of this year. Called an “eco-dashboard”, the meter gives homeowners detailed, up-to-the-minute information about the amount they can save by turning off individual appliances or lowering the temperature on their thermostats. It also has a function allowing automatic control of devices such as washing machines and dishwashers so that a computer can switch them when grid-wide power demand is at a low point and when variable electricity prices are cheaper.
Paul Tonko, president of New York state’s energy research and development authority, said wastage was often a problem in rented accommodation where tenants do not see electricity bills when landlords deal with them. “If we’re talking about reducing demand, there’s nothing better than having the consumer in control, knowing exactly what they’re spending,” Mr Tonko said.In New York, the state government has set a target of a 15% cut in electricity consumption by 2015, one of the most aggressive environmental aspirations in America. It has joined nine other north-eastern American states in a joint effort to develop a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse emissions – a project shunned by the US government in Washington.
By Andrew Clark
25 October 2007
Country Guardian: countryguardian.net
Campaign to Protect Rural England: www.cpre.org.uk
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