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Wind Turbines: Cutting-Edge Technology for an Old Idea

Wind turbines convert kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power.

Did you think that using the wind to power our world is a new idea? Think again. From windmills in the Netherlands to those found in farms in the Great Plains of the United States, wind energy has been used to produce food and provide water for centuries. Though the windmill’s usage has declined over the years, they’ve seen resurgence as producers of electricity. More efficient designs, sturdier materials, and better technology have brought windmills into the twenty-first century.

Use of windmills to produce electricity dates back to 1887, when James Blythe created a wind turbine to charge batteries that lit his house in Scotland. Unfortunately, when he offered the technology to light his town’s streets, he was refused, as the townspeople were certain there was something supernaturally wrong about electricity. As electricity became a more accepted type of energy to use, ways to generate it expanded. By 1900, Denmark had produced 2,500 windmills that could generate a peak power of about 30 megawatts—enough to power about 3,000 of today’s homes (if you don't have holiday lights on!). By the 1930s in the United States, wind generators to refill battery storage banks were common on farms that were not yet connected to electrical distribution systems.

The 1970s brought improvement in the efficiency and structure of wind turbines. Led by NASA, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. government worked with industries to advance technology and enable large commercial wind turbines. This program pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies in use today, creating devices producing a total of 7.5 megawatts of power each.

In the twenty-first century, with rising concerns over energy security and fossil fuel depletion, wind power for electricity generation began developing more quickly. Turbine towers went from simple steel structures to tubular steel or reinforced concrete towers, with maintenance stairs inside for technicians to reach and maintain the generator.

The ACI Foundation’s Strategic Development Council (SDC) has identified concrete wind turbine towers as a critical technology for the concrete industry. The DOE anticipates the wind industry to grow at an annual rate of about 5 to 16 gigawatts of installed onshore and offshore wind capacity in the United States over the next 20 years. Because a more constant wind flow can be achieved at higher elevations, towers at and beyond 100 meters (328 feet) have been developed, with the resulting need for a more cost-effective solution than steel-only towers. Concrete and concrete/steel hybrids have been developed for enhanced dynamic performance, lower maintenance costs, increased service life, easier on-site assembly, and a more robust tower base that can handle heavier wind turbines in the future.

To help decrease the cost of these towers, BergerABAM has joined the SDC to establish an open and competitive concrete tower market by developing design standards and guidelines, working with the wind industry, and working with research institutions to fill knowledge gaps.