2011-11-08

Co.Exist

Thar She Blows: The Complex Algorithm To Get Wind Turbines The Most Wind

Because you can’t just move a wind turbine once you’ve installed it, a complicated computer program that analyzes everything from tides to deforestation is taking the guesswork out of where to put them.

Today’s best wind turbines convert only about 10% to 40% of the kinetic energy of the wind into electricity—and that’s under good conditions. One way you can get more out of wind energy is by improving a turbine’s design. But even more important, perhaps, is where you put it.

Finding the optimal site for a wind farm, and determining how to place the individual turbines, requires making reliable predictions about wind turbulence and direction. That turns out to be a complex problem. Moreover, making the right choice is important. A small difference in placement can make a big difference in output, and you can’t just move a 400-foot tower if you get it wrong.

Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, is working with IBM to solve that problem with large scale data analysis. Vestas is using an IBM supercomputer, “Firestorm,” along with IBM software called BigInsights, to analyze a staggering amount of data including weather reports, tidal phases, satellite images, and deforestation maps to predict where wind turbines will generate the most electricity.

According to Lars Christian Christensen, vice president of plant siting and forecasting at Vestas, analysis that used to take the company three weeks will now take only 15 minutes.

Currently the company’s system has 2.8 petabytes of storage. (That’s about 1.4 billion floppy disks’ worth.) It plans to scale up to 20 petabytes in the coming years.

The wind energy sector has become increasingly competitive. Vestas is still the largest turbine manufacturer, but it’s market share fell from 28% in 2007 to 12.5% in 2009. If this technology allows Vestas to optimize the amount of energy a wind farm generates, that gives the company a significant advantage.

As Christensen said, "Vestas turbines operate for decades and clients demand to know how much energy they will produce and what their return on investment will be before they are installed."

And given how quickly turbines are going up these days—wind energy accounted for 39% of all new U.S. electric generating capacity in 2009—it’s nice for us all to have some assurance that we’re putting them in the right places.

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