Marginal gains will get us everywhere

When Sir David Brailsford was running the British cycling team, he developed the philosophy of marginal gains. It was easily explained in cycling terms -- if you break down everything that goes into the rider and bike and improve it by just 1%, the increase is significant when you put it all back together.

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It worked spectacularly well. The British team went from also-rans to world beaters, dominating at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

The pertinence of this philosophy for the wind industry is a common thread running throughout this technology-heavy issue of the magazine. As the industry gathers for its biennial techno-fest in Hamburg, the overriding message - from turbine designers to meteorological experts - is the need to focus on incremental advances that optimise turbine performance and availability and drive down the cost of wind energy. Having made many giant leaps already, the time has come to concentrate on the small steps, and pay attention to the peripherals.

Looking back at the technological progress wind power has made since taking its first faltering steps in the wake of the 1970s fuel crisis (p58), we see the wide variety of configurations tried in the pioneering days, but by the end of the 1980s the industry settled almost universally on the horizontal-axis three-blade upwind turbine. Today's machines are of a completely different magnitude in terms of size and power, and they are much more refined and reliable, but they are not radically different in technological terms from those early turbines.

It was a refinement of blades that gave the industry one of the more recent successes and opened up a new area of growth in low wind sites.

And today, the focus must go even deeper than uprating an existing turbine design, extending the rotor diameter and mounting it on a taller tower. It requires systematic investigation into every aspect of the process of delivering wind-generated electricity to the grid.

A new type of oil filter might go unnoticed in the melee of major technical advances, but systems that reliably provide the correct amount of oil at the correct pressure, whatever the weather, are crucial to extending the lives of turbine gearboxes. A rotor blade lifter that can operate in wind speeds higher than others and so speed up construction is a benefit not to be underestimated. These are the sort of products and services that are all making the difference.

Offshore scope

There is still plenty of scope for innovative thinking in the rather younger offshore sector, where operating conditions are much tougher. Product development here has largely followed the onshore model - gradually increasing turbine power and rotor-blade diameter but concentrating more on reducing installation costs and improving operations-and-maintenance regimes. However, work is progressing on a number of designs that deviate from the three-blade upwind norm. Two-blade downwind units might yet find a place in the sector, probably in high wind-turbulence areas.

For the foreseeable future, however, technological development in the wind industry will be concentrated on the small stuff - from improved weather forecasting and more accurate data measuring to, yes, oil filters and blade lifters. It may not sound very exciting, but it worked for the British cycling team.

Jacki Buist is editor of Windpower Monthly

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