The most powerful wind turbine in the world now spins over the Rotterdam harbor in the Netherlands. Nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower, each blade is as long as a football field.
“It’s a fantastic engineering feat,” said Steve Wilson, a project manager with SSE Renewables for the wind farm that will use these Haliade-X turbines — designed by General Electric (GE) — for the first time.
When Wilson first visited the turbine in 2019, he rode in a small elevator to the top of the tower. The rotor blades were so long, he could barely see the ends of them.
“I think the first reaction when we were presented with Haliade-X was that it was a real step change for the global offshore wind industry."
“I think the first reaction when we were presented with Haliade-X was that it was a real step-change for the global offshore wind industry,” Wilson said.
Over the next five years, Wilson’s company, SSE, will install nearly 200 of these giant turbines in the Dogger Bank wind farm off the east coast of the United Kingdom, in the North Sea. When the turbines are up and spinning, the project will produce enough energy for around 6 million homes — roughly 5% of the UK’s energy needs.
It’s one of many offshore wind projects located in the North Sea — a global hot spot for renewable wind energy projects. Many countries along its coast including the UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, plan to get significant amounts of their energy needs from offshore turbines, with goals to meet up to half of their energy needs that way by the 2040s.
Highly ambitious offshore wind farm projects are being planned and proposed around the world, largely in Europe, but also in East Asia and off the US coasts. The Haliade-X could be a key piece of many of those projects.
The industry has been steadily working to improve wind technology, making turbines more powerful and efficient. It turns out, bigger is better.
“The sheer scale of these things is sort of amazing. It's almost impossible to imagine,” said Sara Hastings-Simon, an energy expert at the Payne Institute of Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. “They are taller than the Washington Monument. They're approaching the height of the Empire State Building. I mean, these are just enormous machines.”
Their height allows for stronger, steadier winds at higher altitudes, and their size increases their capacity to capture a lot more wind per turbine.
“One single sweep of one of these large wind turbines can power the average house for a day or two."
“One single sweep of one of these large wind turbines can power the average house for a day or two,” Hastings-Simon said.
A single turbine can power about 16,000 homes at competitive rates that are often cheaper than other forms of electricity.
A wind farm that used to need 500 conventional wind turbines would only need about 80 or 90 with this new design, and that makes them much more cost-efficient, said Kees van der Leun, a longtime renewable energy consultant and director at Guidehouse Consultants in the Netherlands.
“[The turbines have] grown by a factor of six or seven in just 15 years,” van der Leun said. “It's beyond what I thought was possible.”
Van der Leun said wind power costs have decreased but this new GE model is a game-changer.
“A lot of countries are having this push to decarbonize, and then they look to the most cost-effective options to do that. ... Thanks to these new turbines — but also all kinds of innovation in building wind farms — we have now achieved such a point that they're eminently affordable. So, that's why we are now entering into an acceleration mode.”
“A lot of countries are having this push to decarbonize, and then they look to the most cost-effective options to do that,” van der Leun said. “Thanks to these new turbines — but also all kinds of innovation in building wind farms — we have now achieved such a point that they're eminently affordable. So, that's why we are now entering into an acceleration mode.”
Other major wind energy manufacturers like Siemens Gamesa and Vestas Wind Systems are expected to roll out larger models that would compete with the Haliade-X.
Van der leun says he expects bigger turbine models to pop up in offshore wind farms around the world in the next few years, such as China, Japan, Korea and countries across Europe — all places with ambitious plans to lower their carbon emissions.
There’s also talk of installing them off the US’ East Coast to help the incoming Biden administration put the country on track to decarbonize its electricity sector by 2035.
Of course, bigger, better wind turbines are not a silver bullet, Hastings-Simon said.
“We have to acknowledge that any kind of energy generation has impacts,” she said. “It comes down to a combination of making sure that we're using as little energy as possible and making as little impact as possible.”
As renewable energy becomes more cost-effective, it will allow the world to replace the highly polluting power generation systems that so many rely on.
Bigger turbines help us get there, Hastings-Simon said.
“With renewable energy, it's only really going to make an impact if it can produce power at the scale that we need it,” she said. “This is getting to that question of size.”