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On Reflection: Whom should we thank for wind energy's success?

WORLDWIDE: Through careful international collaboration between engineers, researchers and technicians, a set of industry standards has been formulated that will take turbine design and the wind industry into the next generation.

(pic: Diekleinert/Alamy)
(pic: Diekleinert/Alamy)

Over the past 39 years of working in the wind industry, I have come to appreciate many things. Among them are that persistence pays off, continuous technical innovation is the path to lowering the cost of energy and international collaboration on standards is essential for a commercial foundation. Independently, these realisations are not too remarkable, but it is the success of collaboration on standards (and the often unappreciated relationship to innovation of this work) that really impresses me.

When I started designing wind turbines in 1975, we had no text books, guidelines or standards. We borrowed knowledge from the aerospace industry and the early 1980s saw an explosion of turbine designs. There were many debates about the best configurations and size, but what everyone would agree on today is that we did not know as much in those days as we thought we did. We learned the hard way that we needed a better design foundation. Only when test engineers discovered why turbines were failing did we realise we needed a better design process that addressed the unique challenges.

Research laboratories collaborated, comparing test results while universities developed load simulators that mimicked the complex interaction of turbulence, aerodynamics and control systems. Finally, extensive testing validated these valuable tools. But how to use these tools to design reliable machines with a 20-year working life was still a mystery. Guidelines were needed.

International collaboration had brought us to consensus on the physics, but had not provided a design foundation. What is the maximum 20-year gust? How should turbulence be translated into fatigue life? How should a turbine be designed without knowing its final site conditions? There were many approaches but without those that yield consistent results it was difficult to gain investor confidence. It is impossible to build a world-class commercial industry without the foundational elements of a common design process.

Researchers and designers realised they needed design standards to create that foundation. Only when the first testing standards cemented agreement on reliable performance measurement techniques could designers verify their designs. It was not until there was a transparent certification process to verify design calculations that analysts' claims of 20-year life could be independently confirmed. Such confirmations were key to government acceptance of nascent products.

A meeting of experts

To achieve this, international experts started meeting more than 25 years ago under the auspices of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Technical Committee 88 (TC88) to develop standards to support the commercial development of wind energy.

With broad international engagement through IEC, harmonisation of standards nationally is possible, which is one of the elements needed to accelerate the industry. IECRE has enabled end users to engage in an assessment process with an equal voice, but it is the link between research needs, innovation and standards that is overlooked. Experts may only realise the limits of their knowledge once they attempt to draft standards.

I have witnessed the wind industry make remarkable strides, made possible through the efforts of talented researchers, designers, manufacturers and developers. But it is the quiet success of those persistent few who develop international standards and their research partners to whom we owe many thanks as well. Without them we would not have the technical foundation nor the next generation of technology.

Sandy Butterfield is president of Boulder Wind Consulting, and is chairman of the International Electrotechnical CommissionRenewable Energy Conformity Assessment System

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