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Bigger And Smarter: Wind Turbines Are Growing Up

New networked turbines will make the power grid run more smoothly, even when the wind isn’t blowing.

As wind energy matures, wind turbine design isn’t only getting more exciting: it’s getting smart (like, in the "smart phone" sense of the word). Consider General Electric’s new 2.5-120 turbine, what it calls "the world’s most efficient high-output and the first brilliant turbine," released at the end of January.

What makes this turbine, not just "smart" (which probably would’ve been enough) but "brilliant?" It hooks up to the "Industrial Internet"—the term coined by GE for its futuristic vision of industry where sensor-equipped machines share and process oceans of data—to manage natural ups and downs in wind flow and provide power to the grid more smoothly. Packed full of sensors, the new turbine can analyze "thousands of data points every second" and "integrates energy storage and advanced forecasting algorithms while communicating seamlessly with neighboring turbines, service technicians and customers," GE vice president Vic Abate said in a statement.

The new turbine is also bigger—maxing out at 139 meters-high with a 120-meter rotor. While that makes it more powerful and efficient, especially when it’s less windy out, it increases the disparities in wind condition between the top and bottom of the blades. As MIT Technology Review reported last week, the sensors help the turbines react to discrepancies in wind conditions.

Internet-equipped turbines also are able to communicate with each other. If a gauge on one breaks, for example, sensors could let turbines provide the missing data to its neighbor, which could mean less power lost during downtime. And if the new GE turbines connect with data on weather forecasts, they have the potential to know when to store energy, and when to transmit it to the grid.

The result is a wind farm that functions more like a power plant, and an important step toward wind energy that’s as reliable and flexible as one. GE’s first prototype heads to the Netherlands in a month.