What if there were giant wind turbines, as big as skyscrapers and with blades as flexible as palm trees, capable of producing up to 50 MW of energy? According to a study (on small-scale prototypes) it will be possible to make them. Just one of these plants would be enough to supply energy to about 15.000 homes. Currently the height of a turbine stops at about 300 meters (more or less like the Eiffel Tower) and can generate up to 15 MW of power. Larger turbines would produce much more energy at lower cost, but making them is not easy: the longer blades can bend in strong winds and risk hitting the tower.
Eric Lot, of the University of Virginia, explains that it would be very difficult. Indeed, more: "To tell the truth, I don't think it is currently possible". And in the future?
Loth and his team found a way around the problem. Their approach does not involve three rigid blades in the direction of the wind, but two 250-meter blades mounted downwind, on the other of a 300-meter-high tower: in summary, an overall height of 550 meters (more than the Freedom Tower, which New York replaced the Twin Towers). What is the principle of these giant towers? Instead of battling against the wind, these foldable blades adjust like palm fronds during a hurricane. “The idea is to go with the flow instead of fighting it,” Loth says. "During a hurricane, the fronds of a palm tree can bend to go with the current, even the trunk can bend until it touches the ground."
And it works? In scale it seems so. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the United States in Colorado has installed a prototype with two wind turbines from 20 meters, which was in operation until last July 2022. The Loth team is currently analyzing data from this project (the turbine has been in operation for two years). According to the team, the technical feasibility of giant turbines is good, and it appears the design could easily be successfully scaled up.
Giant wind turbines, let's go slow
To build its giant 50 MW turbine project, Loth needs a company with lots of funds. Many. “It will take about $1 billion to build a full-scale prototype,” says the scientist. But he is convinced that once the results are verified, turbine manufacturers will be interested in the idea.
As you can imagine, however, not everyone in the industry agrees. Gerard van Bussel of Delft University of Technology, for example, argues that radically changing the approach may be too great a risk. It echoes him Richard Cochrane of the University of Exeter. The researcher says that if we want these giant turbines to become a reality, we need a radical change in technology. To begin with, the largest ships capable of installing turbines only reach 336 meters in length. We don't even have cranes and ports big enough to handle such giant things.
For me it will take at least 20 years, and this "race" for giant dimensions could distract from the real goal: the scalability of current systems, which are more than valid. Instead, methods must be studied to install more offshore turbines, improve the distribution and conservation of the energy produced and other systems. There is time for delusions of grandeur.