Wind turbines

Image source: Tim Foster Unsplash


As climate concerns continue to rise alongside increasing energy demands, renewable power is becoming an important and much needed resource. Wind energy - an important source of renewable energy - is gaining popularity in many parts of the world. Some new research from Penn State Behrand and the University of Tabriz in Iran shows how more efficient wind farm designs can improve energy outcomes.

“Wind power is the most competitive option for adding new capacity to the grid in a growing number of markets,” said Steve Sawyer, Secretary General at the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). “If the Paris Agreement targets are to be reached, that means closing fossil fuel fired plants and replaced them with wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass.”

Compared to other sources of renewable energy, wind turbines are incredibly efficient—they convert around 45 percent of wind energy into electricity, versus the less than 25 percent conversion rate of solar panels. However, the efficiency of wind-energy farms depends largely on their layout.

Optimizing wind farm design

The research, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, uses animals as a model to optimize power production. In order to generate power efficiently, turbines have to be placed to capitalize on the highest wind speeds, minimize on interference from other turbines, and account for geographical factors such as landscape and weather. Many of these details can be hard to measure and include in wind farm design; this is known as the “wind farm layout optimization problem.”

Nature is efficient, and it only makes sense that modern technologies draw on natural designs. Animal models have inspired many ways to address global concerns across various sectors. This is what’s known as biomimicry—“sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies,” according to the Biomimicry Institute.

In the study, researchers used “biogeographical-based optimization”, or BBO, to improve wind farm design and energy production. BBO is a mathematical model that explains how animals are naturally distributed to make the best use of the resources around them. By applying this model to wind farms, the researchers developed an algorithm to estimate how turbines should be distributed for the highest amount of energy production. 

“This BBO method minimizes computation and gives better results, finding the optimum solution at less computational cost,” said Mohammad Rasouli, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State Behrand and corresponding author of the study.

Similar attempts using BBO to optimize wind farm layout have been used in the past, but these approaches failed to address all aspects of an optimum layout. This new model accounts for factors such as the roughness of landscape surfaces and the actual amount of wind energy received by each turbine. To improve the BBO approach, the authors proposed a more realistic model of wind wake—the result of slowing wind speeds after wind passes through a turbine. Changes to wind speed affect how much energy is received by downstream turbines.

The study also looks at real market financial data to understand the economic benefits of optimizing wind farm design, as well as how farmers can generate the most revenue while producing more renewable energy for their customers.

The future of wind energy

In Canada, there are nearly 300 wind farms across the country, and the capacity for wind power production has been steadily growing over the past decade. Wind energy supplied about 6 percent of Canada’s overall energy demand in 2017, and this is expected to increase.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, wind power production could read 2.1 million megawatts by 2030—an amount that would supply up to 20 percent of electricity worldwide and reduce carbon emissions by more than 3.3 billion tonnes per year. Growth of the industry not only limits air pollutants and greenhouse gases, it has social and economic benefits. If 2030 targets are reached, more than 2.3 million new jobs would be created globally, attracting about $300 million in investments.

Non-renewable energy sources such as coal and other fossil fuels cause more air pollution which can be harmful to public health. This, along with international targets to meet climate goals, is incentive enough to invest in these sustainable technologies. Technologies for cleaner energy are reducing reliance on fossil fuels, paving the way to better environmental and human health.

“Now that the Paris Agreement is coming into force, countries need to get serious about what they committed to last December,” said Sawyer.“Wind power will play the major role in getting us there.”

Braydon Black is a recent graduate of the Biological Sciences program at the University of Calgary and is currently working as a freelance writer and journalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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