Mighty Morphing Power Turbines

If Virginia ever develops a large fleet of offshore wind turbines, we may have a team of researchers led by the University of Virginia to thank.

Funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the research team expects to build prototypes this summer for a 50-megawatt offshore wind turbine that is nearly six times more powerful than the record-setting turbine deployed off the coast of Scotland in April, reports Greentech Media.

The massive turbine takes a radically different approach to wind turbine design. Conventional turbine blades face the incoming wind. By contrast, blades for the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR) would face downwind and fold together as the wind force increases. The design was inspired by palm trees, which have evolved to survive hurricane-force winds. And surviving hurricane-force winds is exactly what the SUMR is supposed to do.

One of the major barriers to developing a wind farm off the south Atlantic coast is the uncertainty of whether conventional turbines, which can withstand North Sea gales, would hold up to extreme hurricane winds. Before Dominion Energy Virginia is willing to build scores of turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, it wants to erect two turbines in the so-called Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project (VOWTAP) to test a hurricane-resistant design. But the utility was unable to get the project cost, last estimated at $300 million, low enough to win approval by the State Corporation Commission. The project has been effectively shelved.

The ultralight SUMR blades will be 200 meters long, almost twice as long as conventional blades, but will be possible to assemble in pieces, thus avoiding problems shipping them from the factory site to the project site. Because the blades would be constructed of more malleable materials, they also would be capable of morphing downwind.

“We’re trying to have the turbine blades be more aligned along the load path, so we can get away with lower structural mass and have less fatigue and less damage,” said Eric Loth, chair of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UVa and project leader.

The UVa-led consortium plans to test its turbine this summer at the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado and complete the design within a year.

Loth, the design leader, hopes that the new turbine will be transformative. The innovative design could reduce the levelized cost of offshore wind energy by as much as 50% by 2025, he says. “We need to come up with turbines that are not necessarily more efficient but will cost less to build and maintain.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If this research pans out, Virginians should thank their lucky stars that Dominion didn’t commit to spending billions of dollars on what in retrospect can be viewed as risky and outmoded wind technologies. Hopefully, this project will spark renewed interest in offshore wind. It would be doubly cool if Virginia could not only participate in the creation of the SUMR blades but be the first to deploy it on a commercial scale and the first to reap its benefits.

As we think about Virginia’s long-term energy mix (see previous post), we should factor the potential of this new wind technology into the equation.

Correction: Al Christopher, director of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, informs me that the VOWTAP project has not been shelved. Rather it morphed last July into Virginia Coastal Offshore Wind. “Dominion has said publicly several times recently that it plans to file for cost recovery with the SCC very soon.”

There are currently no comments highlighted.

24 responses to “Mighty Morphing Power Turbines

  1. re: ” Funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy”

    wow.. does this mean the government is subsidizing this?

    geezy peezy.. Bacon is asleep at the switch!

    Where is the outrage about Crony Capitalism and all that rot?

    This is as bad as govt giving Amazon incentives, no?

    Even worse… UVA is squandering their professors chasing after govt money instead of focusing on education and affordability…


  2. “Bacon’s bottom line: If this research pans out, Virginians should thank their lucky stars that Dominion didn’t commit to spending billions of dollars on what in retrospect can be viewed as risky and outmoded wind technologies.”

    So Dominion is right to stay away from wind power which is developing into a valuable energy source in other countries?


    • If this technology works out, we’ll get wind power at a much lower cost than if we’d been jumped in with less advanced, more expensive technology. It looks like we’re reaching the threshold where wind will be a bargain, even despite its intermittent nature. Five years ago, wind was not a no-brainer. If this new technology pans out, it will be a no-brainer.

  3. Jim, I don’t believe you even read the omnibus Dominion de-regulation legislation that was so hotly debated on this blog over the past four months. Not that many legislators did, either…

    It contained a provision declaring the offshore wind demonstration turbines to be “in the public interest”, in effect denying SCC authority to reject them on cost alone. Why do that for a dead idea? Their likely partner was heavily engaged in the lobbying. And it was widely understood that one of the trade-offs for Governor McAuliffe’s support for the natural gas pipelines was the utility’s promise to move forward with OSW. I bet he wants photos in time for his next campaign.

    I don’t think the flexible turbine blade design suddenly makes this an economic slam dunk, but it does sound like a great idea that needs testing. Perhaps in a wind tunnel at NASA first. Moving the test turbines substantially closer to land might also change the economics, but then the NIMBY’s will yell about seeing them. But as the wind was whipping up yesterday I was thinking about all the lost energy.

    If hurricanes are the issue, really, don’t you want the test turbines a bit further south? 🙂 Not really hoping for more hurricanes hitting the Virginia Capes….

    • Steve, I believe the legislation sets a very low cap on the offshore wind that “is in the public interest.” I believe it only covers the 16 or so MW that DVP wants to install as its trial facility. I could be wrong here, been a while since I ventured that far down into the weeds.

      • Correct – the demonstration project. The language implies the utility will seek a rate adjustment clause (RAC) to cover it, but if it stops there and does not build out a field of at least 250 MW the RAC expires and the costs fold into base rates. Looking at the paragraph again perhaps they do still need SCC approval of the project. I’m all for doing it, but I’ll like it better if 100 percent of the costs are not borne by the ratepayers of one utility.

  4. Always wondered why turbines could not be sited on the CBBT as well as on the Eastern Shore… on the tops of existing buildings, towers, etc.. .

    The Nimby’s down our way oppose cell towers as well as solar farms – even though the farms are completely surrounded by 200 foot tree/vegetation buffers. The new standard is that if they can see any part of it at any angle… it’s bad….

    but they love their interstate highways… and Walmart, etc… as long as it’s not where they live…

    • Larry,

      Check my belated post on the “Leveraging” question. I think you will find a few wind answers there. It is about the wind, stronger and longer and …

      • Here is more .. the edge of the continental shelf from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras is wide, shallow and the wind blows stronger out there. Our shelf is called the Mid Atlantic Bight and someone once called it the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’. Because the water is relatively shallow, planting wind mills is easier there. Finally, all that potential electricity is not very far from a huge chunk of the US population, where space is at a premium.

        • I think I meant the post to check was mine on Did Coal Save the Grid..
          Brain addled from opoids post operation. Sorry!
          Janie One Note

          • CAW – went back and read your post.. and presume the issue is about the high cost of offshore wind versus the claim that it is the lowest cost energy by far.

            My simplistic thinking was that whatever had already been designed and developed – and installed – we could just get some of them and plop them down and begin harvesting the wind.

            I AM persuaded that ..somewhat like other things – the payoff is downstream of very large up-front costs and if that’s the case – you can see what companies like Dominion are not so hot on the idea especially if the SCC is going to expect them not to add that up-front cost to ratepayers.. and borrow money – which will not help them with their investors.

            I suspect the ones in Europe are helped if not run, by the govt – much like in this country – we do roads,bridges, tunnels.. etc.. the govt usually helps with the up-front costs .. either grants or loans.

            I just take a pragmatic view .. and ask the hard questions… we need to recognize/acknowledge the reasons why wind has not taken off in this country.

          • CleanAir&Water

            Larry, – “we need to recognize/acknowledge the reasons why wind has not taken off in this country.”
            As someone who has argued for offshore wind since 2011 I sure know that.. I am just trying to say that I, and lots of others, now believe that situation is changing. Most new offshore wind is happening in New England where electricity costs more, but they will get the economic advantage of creating the new industry.
            I think VA has missed an opportunity in spite of the advantages we had to build that industry here while Dominion waits for the price to come down. Bringing the price down requires developing that new industry.

  5. Dear Jim,

    And there is the advantage to birds, I would think, from the new design, not as many getting chopped up by the blades. Have you heard anything about this aspect of the design?



    • Dear Andrew –

      Did not know if you had seen this: ” Outdoor cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds a year, study says”

      and then this: ” 89 million to 340 million birds suffer fatal injuries from vehicle encounters annually,”

      and then this: ” Stop blaming cats: As many as 988 million birds die annually in window collisions.”

      billions of birds die every year.. the result of encounters with man-made objects – and cats…

      … An academic paper endorsed by the FWS said that collisions with power lines and transmission towers kill hundreds of thousands to 175 million birds annually,

      I’m not advocating that we kill more – just that we maintain some level of proportionality… and context …

  6. Dear Larry,

    What is the source of the data? Obviously one can become a “safety nut,” but I was just posing the question out of curiosity. (“I have a young daughter who is “all into” birds.) Seriously, I would like to know the data source. Thanks.



  7. Dear Andrew –

    if you Google each excerpt – it will take you to the source but these are multiple different studies that more or less replicate.

    The last chart is from Sibley Birds


    here’s another from the Smithsonian..

    I think the main take away here is that there are a lot of different ways that birds die … so just looking at wind turbines is a bit of a focused oppositional thing.

    A VALID concern is if there are endangered birds that are being killed…. but of course Conservative types are not in to that “endangered” thing anyhow…

    Billions/Trillions of birds die a year from a wide variety of things… the turbines are just another.. they are by no means the biggest killers.

  8. Larry, no discussion of turbines along the bridge-tunnel but the Spanish company Gamesa almost built a 5 MW test turbine near Cape Charles at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. For nationalistic reasons the project went to the Canary Islands instead. Had it gone up there near the north end of the CBBT the whole of Hampton Roads would have had a chance to get used to how it would look on the horizon.


    • Hey Steve, thanks. Towers that are 600 feet ( SUMR blades will be 200 meters long) can be seen 30 miles away so they would be visible to Hampton and environs but if those towers were on the Eastern Shore.. doubtful.

      The other thing – towers that tall would be pretty much above most bird “traffic”…

      By the way -for scale – the top of the Golden Gate Bridge is 746 feet Verrazano narrows – 693 feet

      • The Gamesa tower would have been near Cape Charles right at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore peninsula. Very visible from many areas on Southside, and a spectacular view from the water or for people actually driving on the CBBT. Moot now.

  9. The tops of the towers may be above “bird traffic,” but the blades will certainly not be. They will be, in effect, a 1200 foot diameter weed eater scything the air constantly….

    • Yes..that is certainly true – no question but still a fair height above the ground.

      No source of electric generation is without impacts though and on the bigger turbines … but not to minimize even for wind.

      One of the more favored – have we wondered the impact of a physical dam on fish – both up and downstream. Many fisheries have been largely wiped out by dams interrupting their migration.

      Coal ash ponds and ducks?

      coal and gas mines that pollute water sources and in turn kill critters?

      mercury from burning coal that harms critters

      etc, etc… part of the problem is the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Most folks never see a power plant nor are their sensational videos of critters getting chopped up… but the damage is just as real … just hidden.

      billions of birds die every year (including eagles) hit by cars or others by flying into windows or succumbing to pet cats or seabirds getting tangled in mono-filament, etc.

      Nature produces far more eggs than will ever survive… it’s a natural process… that adapts to mankinds impacts – except for endangered species which are more vulnerable.

  10. It’s interesting new concept but we habitually disregard how extremely hard it is to go from concept stage to successful commercial technology.

  11. Actually the offshore of Virginia Beach project is alive and well. DOM has partnered with Orsted formally DONG energy as in Danish Offshore Oil And Gas who brings their considerable experience to America. Demo project on line in 2020 and production field in phases after.

  12. Pingback: » Hurricane Florence Knocked Out NC Coal and Nuclear Plants, but Solar and Wind Were Back Online the Next DaySolar Equipment Installer

Leave a Reply