When a typhoon hit Japan in September, it was the perfect test for a new wind turbine prototype. The hundred-mile-an-hour winds that can shut down most wind farms—or even sometimes destroy blades and knock over towers—were a bonus for the new design: The harder the wind blows, the more energy the turbines can produce.
"The conventional wind turbine . . . has had almost the same appearance for more than a century," says Kan Watanabe, an engineer for Challenergy, the Japan-based startup behind the new device. "We started to [create] a new type which is optimized for severe weather conditions such as a typhoon."
Instead of long blades, the design has three rotating cylinders that capture wind blowing from multiple directions. It works in winds as fast as 80 meters a second; a typical wind turbine has to shut down in wind speeds over 25 meters a second. The new design is also expected to be less dangerous for birds.
Other wind turbine developers are also working on hurricane-proof turbines, though they won't operate during storms—just prevent the type of damage that can happen if blades are extended. A design from Sandia National Labs uses blades that are 650 feet long (about twice the length of a football field), but so lightweight and flexible that they can bend in the wind like fronds on a palm tree and then fold in safely when speeds are too high.
Preventing damage will be critical as hurricanes are likely to get stronger because of climate change, and repairing enormous wind turbines—especially offshore—is expensive. But preventing damage while generating extra power is even better.
If all of the energy in a hurricane could be captured and stored, it would go a very long way to meeting human demand for energy. According to a NOAA estimate, the energy in a mature hurricane is equal to roughly half all of the electricity generation in the world. (Of course, the technology to store that much power doesn't exist yet, but as batteries improve over time, more power from a storm could be put to use.)
In Japan, which is struggling to meet power demand after the Fukushima disaster led to the shutdown of almost all nuclear power stations, the new turbines could help capitalize on the country's abundant wind.
After Challenergy finishes testing its new turbine design—both in a wind tunnel and on its current test site in Okinawa, where typhoons are common—it will scale up for commercialization. The cost will be competitive with conventional turbines, and the company expects to start installing them wherever there's a chance of extreme winds, from mountain ridges to coastal Japan.