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Tina Casey headshot

They're All In On It: Multinationals Collaborate On Giant Wind Turbine


The Intertubes have been buzzing with news of a new 50-megawatt wind turbine under development under the auspices of the U.S. Energy Department. The scale of the supersized turbine makes it newsworthy enough, but TriplePundit is particularly interested from a business angle because this ambitious project leverages three hot trends at once: biomimicry, public-private partnerships and inter-corporate collaboration.

The collaborative effort also underscores the extent to which powerful, diversified global corporations are embracing renewable energy -- setting off a political ripple effect that undermines the influence of fossil interests such as the Koch brothers and ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

1.  Biomimicry on a gigantic scale

The largest wind turbines in the world currently clock in around the 10-megawatt range, so the huge leap to 50 megawatts requires out-of-the-box thinking. That's where biomimicry comes in.

The project, called the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR), meets this design challenge:

"... A low-cost offshore 50-MW turbine requiring a rotor blade more than 650 feet (200 meters) long, two and a half times longer than any existing wind blade."

With blades extending more than the length of two football fields, creating a system that can avoid damage during storms is a critical part of the challenge. As it turns out, the basic principle behind the solution was quite simple: palm trees.

The palm tree solution is elegantly described in an article on ASME.org, the online publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Do read the piece for a full appreciation of the biomimicry inspiration behind the new design, but for those of you on the go, here's the money quote from University of Virginia professor and research team member, Eric Loth:

The possible solution — segmented rotors — was inspired by the palm tree. “Compared to an oak tree, for instance, palms are light with a segmented trunk that flattens almost to 90 degrees. They can morph to the wind."

The basic idea is that the "fronds" or turbine blades will extend during good weather, and fold up protectively during storms.

2. Public-private partnerships fuel renewable energy progress

As noted above, the SUMR wind turbine project is spearheaded by the U.S. Energy Department, and that agency illustrates the extent to which public-private partnerships are being leveraged for clean energy development here in the U.S.

Leading the Energy Department in the SUMR project, for example, is Sandia National Laboratories. Located on two campuses in New Mexico and California, Sandia is run by the Sandia Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.

If that relationship comes as a surprise to you, consider that Sandia is better known for its national defense R&D, and Lockheed of course is an important national defense partner/supplier.

As for the renewable energy connection, Lockheed has been right on top of the corporate sustainability movement.  It has diversified its operations into wave energy among other renewable sources, and it is the force behind the proprietary WindTracer system for assessing and optimizing wind turbine placement in new wind farms.

The company has also engaged with NASA as part of a collaborative effort to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel.

3. Collaborating for a sustainable future

That brings us to the third trend, inter-corporate collaboration. About two years ago, TriplePundit had a conversation with Deb Frodl, head of GE's global innovation and collaboration platform, Ecomagination, in which she stressed that the collaborative model is needed to address the critical problems of today leading to "big outcomes that change the world."

That mindset is clearly at play in the SUMR wind turbine project. In addition to Lockheed Martin, the project has pulled in GE, Dominion Resources, Siemens AG and Vestas Wind Systems as corporate advisory partners.

The presence of the fossil-centric energy company Dominion among the three wind turbine innovators -- GE, Siemens and Vestas -- was a bit of surprise to us, but last year the Virginia-based company launched a 110-megawatt solar partnership with its home state. More to the point, Dominion already owns a stake in several onshore wind farms in the U.S., and it is poised to assert a leadership position in developing Virginia's share of the considerable offshore wind energy resources in the U.S.

It remains to be seen if Dominion's clean-energy ventures will affect its ongoing support for ALEC, and we notice that our friends over at the Virginian-Pilot are also wondering how much longer the relationship will last.

Speaking of Virginia: The lead research partner in the SUMR project is the University of Virginia. The University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory round out the collaboration.

The next steps include developing a segmented or modular approach to manufacturing the extremely long turbine blades, and developing workable systems for transporting and installing them. One factor working in the project's favor is that the blades are designed to project downwind from the turbine itself, relieving them from the stress incurred by conventional upwind blades.

Photo (cropped): Palm trees by G. Talan via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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