New papers: updating the Grand Challenges for the science of wind energy

If you are in wind energy R&D you might have heard of the “Grand Challenges” over the last few years. Resulting from an international workshop in 2017 and follow-up work, these were proposed in 2019 as the really big, sector-level challenges that need the whole wind energy community to make progress on.

Originally, the three Grand Challenges were quite technical in nature:

  1. Physics of atmospheric flow, especially in the critical zone of wind power plant operation
  2. System dynamics and materials of wind turbines—the largest, most flexible machines ever built
  3. Optimization and control of fleets of wind power plants made up of hundreds of individual generators working to support the electric grid.

You can check out the original paper for free in Science.[1]

That paper triggered lots of discussion. Responses to the article pointed out that the focus on issues of the physical sciences missed equally critical areas related to environmental impact and social interactions.

Revisiting the Grand Challenges

Now, in 2022, many of the original author team (including me) have revisited those Grand Challenges and the areas identified by community feedback. The challenges have been expanded into actionable research agendas, with the aim of contributing to achieving regional and global decarbonization goals.

A new letter in Wind Energy Science, “Grand Challenges: Wind energy research needs for a global energy transition”[2] explains what we’re up to, and why continued progress in all three areas is so important.

This graphic illustrates the generations of wind energy development. Each generation’s achievements expanded wind energy’s impact (shown in the blue boxes on the left); however, in moving quickly from generation to generation, some underlying science was left unresolved (shown in the white boxes on the right). Generation 1 delivered working energy conversion systems, Generation 2 low-cost and reliable turbines, and Generation 3 is beginning to provide controllable wind plants that support the grid. The aspirational goal of Generation 4 is a carbon-neutral future energy system. Wind can be the foundation for the fourth generation, but not until the gaps left behind in the previous generations are addressed. Graphic by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, published in Wind Energy Science (2022).

Taking the Grand Challenges to the Next Level

To articulate a more detailed and actionable set of recommendations, the original authors engaged a larger group of experts to review each grand challenge in more depth and provide recommendations for how outstanding issues, including environmental and social aspects, might be resolved.

I led a team looking at the Grand Challenges for digitalisation, while other teams have looked at the challenges for the turbine, for our understanding of the atmosphere, and other themes. In total around ten papers are planned, which will be released through the journal Wind Energy Science:

Grand Challenge 1: The Atmosphere

The following Wind Energy Science articles focus on the challenge of atmospheric flow physics:

  1. “Impact of Atmospheric Turbulence on Performance and Loads of Wind Turbines: Knowledge Gaps and Research Challenges.” To achieve optimal wind turbine performance and reliability, the industry will require better characterization of turbulence and its effects under the wide range of atmospheric conditions in which wind plants are expected to generate power continuously and reliably.
  2. “Mesoscale Wind Plant Wakes.” Wakes, or regions of slower and more turbulent air downwind of wind turbines, need to be better understood, as does the impact on local climates that large-scale deployment of wind energy may introduce.
  3. “Scientific Challenges to Characterizing the Wind Resource in the Marine Atmospheric Boundary Layer.” The offshore wind environment needs greater definition and understanding to optimize offshore wind power plants for their local environments. A first version has been published for comments[3]

Grand Challenge 2: The Wind Turbine

The following Wind Energy Science article focuses on the challenge of wind turbine system dynamics and materials:

  1. “Grand Challenges in the Design, Manufacture, and Operation of Future Wind Turbine Systems.” The size and flexibility of modern wind turbines have pushed design beyond where assumptions and modeling tools were first established, which creates unprecedented risks. Researchers lack the experimental data at the large scale necessary to validate the models and materials used to develop innovative solutions for future wind energy systems. A first version has been published for comments [4].
  2. “Current Status and Grand Challenges for Small Wind Turbine Technology." While modern wind turbines have become by far the largest rotating machines on Earth, a renewed interest in small wind turbines is fostering energy transition and smart grid development. Small machines have traditionally not received the same level of design refinement as their larger counterparts, resulting in lower efficiency, lower capacity factors, and therefore a higher cost of energy.

Grand Challenge 3: The Plant and Grid

The following Wind Energy Science articles focus on the challenge of optimizing and controlling wind farm fleets:

  1. “Wind-Farm Flow Control: Prospects and Challenges.” Managing the air flow through wind power plants is a complex challenge but offers opportunities to evolve optimal plant design, enhance production, lower maintenance costs, and provide the controllability demanded by the larger energy system. A first version has been published for comments.[5]
  2. “Grand Challenges of Wind Energy Science—The Grid.” A grid dominated by wind energy and solar power will impose system needs that will also challenge how we approach the design of individual turbines, wind power plants, hybrid power plants, and the grid itself.

Crosscut: Digitalization

The following Wind Energy Science article focuses on the challenge of digitalization:

  1. “Grand Challenges in the Digitalization of Wind Energy.” A future in which digitalization has made data accessible in the right places and at appropriate times has many valuable outcomes, but significant technical and cultural impediments must be resolved before this aspirational goal for wind energy can be achieved. A first version has been published[6].

Beyond Technical Borders: Environmental and Social Issues

The following Wind Energy Science articles focus on the challenges of environmental and social impacts:

  1. “Interdisciplinary Research Challenges in Wind Energy at the Intersection of Engineering and Environmental Science.” Environmental research must define wildlife and habitat impacts of large-scale deployment in collaboration with engineering of wind turbines and plants.
  2. “Social Aspects of Wind Energy Development.” The social aspects of how wind plants interact with the communities in which they are built and communities served by low-cost clean electricity need to be addressed. Solutions will need to evolve beyond assessments of acceptance to include engagement in planning and design processes and different ownership structures to embrace the transition as a shared task among members of society.

The whole series of papers will be collected later on the European Academy of Wind Energy’s website.

Implications for innovation and startups in wind energy

Although the name “Grand Challenges” may make them seem large and intractable, these issues all represent blank spaces in the existing map of the wind energy sector. They are all actually opportunities for innovation and startups to move quickly and create early products or solutions that can help make progress. This will be particularly important if startups are targeting innovators or early adopters, rather than the mass market.

Another factor to consider is that these Grand Challenges and the associated papers will influence government RD&D funding in the near future. This is because of the close relationships between governments in wind energy R&D at a strategic level. Expect, of course, much adjustment of the Grand Challenges to fit national interest, but also expect the general themes to be present.

Questions to the community

What do you think? Are the Grand Challenges and these efforts to convert them into actionable goals, useful? Are they relevant? Have they impacted your business or ideas at all? Looking forwards to your thoughts!

Many thanks to Paul Veers (NREL) and Carol Laurie in the NREL Communications Office who provided the graphic and the summary material under "Taking the Grand Challenges to the Next Level" for use by the *Grand Challenges* author team.

  1. Veers, P., Dykes, K., Lantz, E., Barth, S., Bottasso, C. L., Carlson, O., Clifton, A., Green, J., Green, P., Holttinen, H., Laird, D., Lehtomäki, V., Lundquist, J. K., Manwell, J., Marquis, M., Meneveau, C., Moriarty, P., Munduate, X., Muskulus, M., … Wiser, R. (2019). Grand challenges in the science of wind energy. In Science (Vol. 366, Issue 6464). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2027 ↩︎

  2. Veers, P., Dykes, K., Basu, S., Bianchini, A., Clifton, A., Green, P., Holttinen, H., Kitzing, L., Kosovic, B., Lundquist, J. K., Meyers, J., O’Malley, M., Shaw, W. J., and Straw, B.: Grand Challenges: Wind energy research needs for a global energy transition, Wind Energ. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], DOI: 10.5194/wes-2022-66, in review, 2022. ↩︎

  3. Shaw, W., Berg, L., Debnath, M., Deskos, G., Draxl, C., Ghate, V., Hasager, C., Kotamarthi, R., Mirocha, J., Muradyan, P., Pringle, W., Turner, D., and Wilczak, J.: Scientific Challenges to Characterizing the Wind Resource in the Marine Atmospheric Boundary Layer, Wind Energ. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], DOI: 10.5194/wes-2021-156, in review, 2022. ↩︎

  4. Veers, P., Bottasso, C., Manuel, L., Naughton, J., Pao, L., Paquette, J., Robertson, A., Robinson, M., Ananthan, S., Barlas, A., Bianchini, A., Bredmose, H., Horcas, S. G., Keller, J., Madsen, H. A., Manwell, J., Moriarty, P., Nolet, S., and Rinker, J.: Grand Challenges in the Design, Manufacture, and Operation of Future Wind Turbine Systems, Wind Energ. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], DOI: 10.5194/wes-2022-32, in review, 2022. ↩︎

  5. Meyers, J., Bottasso, C., Dykes, K., Fleming, P., Gebraad, P., Giebel, G., Göçmen, T., and van Wingerden, J.-W.: Wind farm flow control: prospects and challenges, Wind Energ. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], DOI: 10.5194/wes-2022-24, in review, 2022. ↩︎

  6. Clifton, A., Barber, S., Bray, A., Enevoldsen, P., Fields, J., Sempreviva, A. M., Williams, L., Quick, J., Purdue, M., Totaro, P., and Ding, Y.: Grand Challenges in the Digitalisation of Wind Energy, Wind Energ. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], DOI: 10.5194/wes-2022-29, in review, 2022. ↩︎