Rethinking Design: Can Wind Energy Outsmart Low-Priced Oil?

We all know that wind power provides many advantages over fossil fuels. Wind is cheap, clean, and renewable. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

For instance, good wind sites are often located in remote locations, far from cities where we need the electricity. Turbines can cause noise pollution, while blades can damage local wildlife (you can guess who wins the bird vs. blade battle).

For years, engineers have worked to address these challenges, improving the technology with each year. But now, there’s a new challenge that confronting the industry:

Dropping oil prices.

I’m sure you’ve noticed at the pump when you fill up your car’s tank that prices have plummeted over the past two years. In June 2014 a barrel of crude cost $110. In 2016, that same barrel now costs less than $30. That’s translated into gas prices falling well below $2.00/gallon.

While nobody’s complaining about the price of driving these days, for wind power those low prices means heavier competition as cheaper fossil-fueled technologies, like generators, become increasingly attractive as sources of power.

Wind Hangs On

The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, a recent study from the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), says the industry is doing well, despite lower fuel prices. The report estimates that 8.5GW of wind was installed in 2015. That’s 65% above 2014 levels.

The most well known manufacturer of wind turbines, Vestas Wind Systems, recently posted a full-year profit for 2015 that not only beat forecasts but expects to keep revenues rising despite low global oil prices. The company also secured its highest ever order intake, doing so across 34 countries on five continents, which bodes well for continued high activity levels in 2016.

Mr. W Keeps His Job

Many organizations and thinkers are still looking to wind as a valid power source. Need proof? Even the lovable but misunderstood character in this video got a gig.


So how are Mr. W and his friends thriving in a time of cheap oil? Innovation!

Though most of us are familiar with the rotating blade design on hilltops and windy prairies you see on long road trips, more innovation and new ideas have been brewing in wind engineering and design than you might guess. Here are three innovations that are changing the way we’re approaching wind power:

1. Vertical-axis wind turbines

The opposite of the standard blade design, also known as VAWTs, their main rotor shaft is set transverse to the wind (but not necessarily vertically) while the main components are located at the base of the turbine. In other words, the turbine doesn’t need to be pointed into the wind to be effective. That lowers setup and production costs.


Image: The world’s tallest vertical-axis wind turbine, in Cap-Chat, Quebec.

2. Wind kites

Taking to the air, the Makani kite-energy system (acquired by Google) uses autonomous tethered wings that fly in a circular path and generate electricity via wind turbines mounted upon the main wing. It’s cutting the cost of wind energy. Watch it in action here: 

3. Urban designs

Going even smaller and beyond open spaces are rooftop designs. For instance, these four 45-foot-tall wind turbines on a Portland, Ore., building will provide research and generate electricity close to where it’s needed. The turbines for the building are expected to generate 9,000-kilowatt hours yearly and provide data on wind flows and bird strikes.


Image: Twelve West is a 22-floor, mixed-use apartment and office building located in downtown Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

PTC Creo helps too

Wind turbine designs like those at Vestas can have as many as 8,000 parts. Engineers need reliable tools that they can use to create and test designs before heading into manufacturing. That’s where PTC Creo helps. With tools like PTC Creo Parametric for 3D design, PTC Creo Simulate for digital analysis (including finite element analysis), and PTC Creo Advanced Assembly Extension for concurrent engineering (via top-down design), companies can ensure big and expensive projects, like wind turbines, are designed correctly and efficiently, right from the start.

[Ed. Feeling inspired? Developing wind turbine technology with PTC Creo can be a breeze (get it?). You can read more about PTC customers and the remarkable engineering challenges they conquer every day by visiting our Case Studies page. ]

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