GE is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on a project to improve the design, manufacture and installation of wind turbine blades.
According to GE, the new manufacturing approach and blade design could reduce blade-production costs by up to 40%, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.
GE's research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal space frame, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs that run the length of the blade and be specially designed to meet the demands of wind turbine blade operations. Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier and more labor- and time-intensive to manufacture.
In turn, advancements in blade technology will help spur the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds, GE says, noting that current technology does not easily allow for the 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 acquire. With this new approach to making wind blades, components could be built and assembled on-site, meaning design engineers no longer have to worry about manufacturing and transportation limitations, GE explains.
The $5.6 million ARPA-E project will span three years. GE says its blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20-year life with no regular maintenance to tension fabrics required.