Dec 4, 2017 | By David

As energy efficiency becomes increasingly important to secure the future stability of our planet’s environment and eco-system, harnessing the power of the wind looks like the safest bet for industries and governments worldwide. Using the Earth’s natural air gusts to generate electricity might seem like the ideal solution, but there are still some limitations that are preventing wind power from taking fossil fuels’ precariously balanced global energy crown. The impractical size of turbines is one of the main problems currently holding it back, but a Californian start-up might have found a solution to this, with the help of 3D printing.

To capture as much natural energy as possible, a wind turbine needs to be tall enough to incorporate the necessarily huge blades and take advantage of the stronger winds higher up in the atmosphere. In the United States, the average height of a turbine is currently just over 80 metres. However, components for these turbines can be very difficult to store and transport over long distances, so the logistical problems involved with this still relatively new technology can end up costing a lot of money and reducing its appeal as an efficient power source.

RCAM Technologies was recently awarded a $1.25-million grant from the California Energy Commission (CEC) to develop and test 3D printing technology which will enable the construction of concrete turbine towers in place at the project site. Using 3D printing on-site could point the way forward for the wind power industry, as it would allow the same huge turbines to be used without the prohibitive logistical costs.

If the project proves successful, 3D printing could be used to build turbines almost twice as big as existing ones. RCAM Technologies wants to use reinforced concrete additive manufacturing technology to erect towers 140 meters or higher. The company was founded by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) alumnus Jason Cotrell, who left NREL in May to pursue grant funding to develop the technology.

Based on estimates made with the help of NREL’s levelized cost of energy (LCOE) modeling tools, the company expects that a 140 meter tower would increase electricity production by more than 20 percent at a site with moderate wind shear. This will reduce the levelized cost of wind generated electricity in a low wind speed site by 11 percent. The newer, ultra-tall towers would boost capacity factors and thus generate electricity at a lower cost by enabling turbines to reach steadier, stronger winds.

RCAM’s 3D printing system should enable the construction of a wind turbine tower on-site in just one day, at half of the cost of conventional steel towers. Construction and testing of a prototype will be carried out in partnership with UC Irvine at the school’s civil engineering laboratory, with the bottom half being made in the new way and the top being fabricated using conventional tapered steel tower sections.

The award of the grant to RCAM is part of the California Energy Commission’s efforts to achieve newly adopted efficiency targets. It hopes to double energy efficiency savings in electric and natural gas uses by 2030, as required by Senate Bill 350. The bill established these new targets to support California's long-term climate goal, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below the levels they were at in 1990, by 2030.

Fully concrete wind towers have been in place in Europe for over a decade now, but their method of construction tends to be more conventional than what RCAM is proposing. While the new additive manufacturing method should make significant savings in terms of logistics, it could also increase the amount of time it will take to build a new turbine when implemented on a large scale.

According to Aaron Barr, a senior consultant with wind power research agency MAKE Consulting, this longer construction cycle might bring its own drawbacks. "Most U.S. wind plants are able to install turbines at a pace of 1 turbine per day or faster, given all turbine equipment has been delivered to on-site staging areas", said Barr. "Use of an in-situ concrete tower solution dramatically increases this installation cycle, adding cost and execution risk to the wind plant development."

The best wind power sites in the country are mostly located in the Great Plains region, but the rest of the U.S isn’t yet a comparative level of efficiency. At an American Wind Energy Association conference in May of this year, the NREL proposed taller turbines as a potential solution.

"Outside of the centrally located wind belt, average performance does not yet meet the levels required to compete with low-priced natural gas and (increasingly) low-cost solar photovoltaics, particularly in an era of relatively low load growth," said a team of NREL researchers. "To broaden the geographic reach of wind power, a continued evaluation of tall tower technology appears to be merited...Achieving higher hub heights can still drive significant improvements in capacity factor throughout broad regions of the country."

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

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