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Blowin’ in the Wind, Connected in the Cloud

GE’s Digital Wind Farm creates new opportunities for the renewable energy sector.


Bob Dylan might have said it right in his song: the answer, at least to some of the world’s energy problems, may be “blowin’ in the wind.”

That answer is wind power. A new technology from General Electric (GE) is set to boost the capacity of wind farms, or groupings of wind turbines, by 20 percent.

Announced in May 2015, the GE Digital Wind Farm consists of two components. First are the turbines. In 2013, GE released its new two megawatt wind turbines that include sensors for tracking wind speed, blade position, changes in conditions and more. These sensors enable the second component—a digital connection that allows the turbines to communicate with each other and automatically adjust their performance to accommodate real-time demands. GE’s Predix, a cloud-based software, facilitates this link between the sensors.

“Our Digital Wind Farm essentially couples big wind with big data,” said Anne M. McEntee, president and chief executive officer of GE Power & Water—Renewable Energy, in an article published by RenewableEnergyWorld.com.

The Predix software continuously analyzes data from the wind turbines within the farm. It contains digital models of the turbines that enable farm operators to see, at any given time, how each turbine is performing. As the cloud platform gathers more data over time, it can predict performance more accurately, seamlessly increase power output and, perhaps, even help reduce maintenance costs.

Digitizing the wind farm’s performance is key to making wind power more attractive to utilities and other energy providers as a competitive replacement for fossil fuels. 
GE’s “Digital Wind Farm technology is helping utilities and industrial users integrate wind power more easily and at lower costs,” says Kevin Haley, director of communications at the American Council On Renewable Energy, a nonprofit organization focused on the integration of renewables into the U.S. energy profile.

As with any technology in its early days, the Digital Wind Farm is subject to speculation as to its true capacity to make wind a reliable source of renewable energy.

“For utility companies worried about the learning curve associated with adding new power technologies like wind, digital integration brings greater control over power assets and better performance to boost reliability—a top concern related to renewables,” says Haley.

“There are concerns that even these digital tools are not enough to fill the gap between intermittent renewables like wind and utilities’ need for consistent, uninterrupted power. Digital management tools are very helpful to improve wind farm efficiency, but are they as important as things like [energy] storage? It remains to be seen,” he adds.

Whether or not GE’s Digital Wind Farm fulfills all expectations, it does contribute to wind’s current standing as the lowest-cost new generation renewable technology, according to the American Council On Renewable Energy. It already makes more financial sense to build a wind farm than it does to build a coal or natural gas plant in the United States, says Haley.

He expects to see wind energy expand offshore in the United States as well. Offshore farms have distinct advantages: their turbines can be “massive,” thereby capable of generating more power, and they can fuel some of the most energy-reliant parts of the country, like New York City.

“It’d be difficult to build a wind farm near New York City, unless it’s [25 or 30 kilometers] out in the ocean, where nobody will be bothered by it,” says Haley.

Offshore wind farms along the East Coast alone could power up to 30 percent of the United States, predicts Haley, adding that GE’s technology will be “instrumental in managing these enormous turbines out at sea, where more constant wind means better, more consistent power.”

GE’s Digital Wind Farm could be a model for India too. According to the American Council On Renewable Energy, research shows that wind is already cost-competitive with imported coal in the country.

“India can immediately start improving its air quality, environmental quality and public health, as well as hedge against rising coal costs, by adding wind,” says Haley.

The country, according to him, is a “top prospect” for many businesses developing renewable solutions. “India really is the next frontier for all types of renewable energy.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.