What are the opportunities, challenges and impacts – socioeconomical and environmental – of wind energy generation? Read on for the latest in this dynamic renewable energy space.
Australia has excellent conditions for harvesting wind power – both onshore and offshore – and business is booming; wind power contributed 37.5 per cent of total renewable energy supply in 2020 and new projects are springing up all over the country in 2021. In November 2021, South Australia set multiple records for the biggest share of wind and solar for any gigawatt scale grid in the world. In Western Australia, Moonies Hill Energy recently received approval to build a $400 million wind farm comprising 42 turbines up to an astounding 200 metres high – which will prove to be a game changer for energy generation. Multiple wind farms operate with a 250MW+ capacity across Australia, including Coopers Gap in Queensland, Sapphire in New South Wales, Hornsdale and Lake Bonney in South Australia and Macarthur in Victoria. A number of exciting projects are in construction, including 530MW Stockyard Hill in Victoria and 1026MW Acciona in Queensland (the biggest wind project in the country), which will come online in 2024.
As projects take off across the country and the globe, wind power is seen as a beacon of hope for the generation of clean energy. However, the visible effects of the rotors on the landscape and existing ecosystems are criticised in on-shore wind farms. The industry is not only faced with the challenge of continuously developing wind energy, but also of ensuring appropriate acceptance for wind turbines on site.
Wind energy - state of the art technology
Wind energy has made enormous strides in efficiency over the past 20 years. This is primarily due to more powerful turbines, but especially to higher wind turbines with larger rotor diameters. In the 1990s, the turbines barely reached a height of 100 metres, including rotors, but today's models are almost approaching the 300-metre mark. The rotor diameter is now also up to 150 metres. These dimensions also allow it to be set up in locations with less wind, as sufficient air movements must always be expected at the heights mentioned.
The electricity generated by current wind turbines is significantly higher than that of earlier models. Today's wind power plant produces an average of up to ten gigawatt hours of electricity per year, around ten times the amount of older rotors. It is precisely for this reason that many repowering projects are currently underway, in which old wind turbines are replaced by newer models. For many wind farms this means that higher but fewer wind turbines are used.
A technology that has just been implemented is what is known as “needs-based lighting”. Behind this is sensor-supported night lighting that is only activated when an object (e.g. airplane or helicopter) is actually approaching. This avoids the constant nightly blinking of wind turbines, which is perceived as annoying by many residents. The rotor blades of current systems are also equipped with heating technology that can prevent ice fall in winter - a potentially life-threatening problem in wind farms just a few years ago.
What opportunities arise from the use of wind energy?
As an important pillar of the energy transition, wind energy opens up the opportunity to produce emission-free electricity from renewable energies and to help reduce CO2 emissions. Especially at certain locations, a strong wind blows all year round, which can be converted cleanly into energy. This applies to both land (onshore wind energy) and the sea (offshore wind energy).
In addition to other renewable energies, the use of wind energy is therefore a highly potent way of protecting the climate through decarbonisation and, at the same time, taking into account the increasing energy demand (i.e. through e-mobility).
What challenges do companies face in the ongoing development of wind energy?
A particular challenge lies in designing the wind turbines in such a way that they continue to gain in efficiency, but are also accepted by the population. The path taken to increase yield must be continued, as this will reduce the number of wind turbines in the landscape. At the same time, wind turbines need to become even quieter, since the unavoidable noise emissions are perceived as disruptive or even threatening (infrasound).
Operational safety, especially with regard to fire protection, is an important future task. However, experts see the development of adequate storage technologies for wind power as the greatest challenge, since their lack is currently cited as a frequent counter-argument for further expansion. It is also important to design wind power even better for offshore use, as it is more widely accepted. This means that wind turbines must be better equipped for use on the high seas in terms of foundations, energy yield and maintenance intensity.
To what extent does wind energy as renewable energy have an impact on the future?
Popularly dubbed by the media as the ‘draft horse of the energy transition’, wind energy, along with solar technology, is considered to be the generation of electricity in the near future. Only a massive expansion of wind power will make it possible to phase out fossil fuels worldwide. Not least because CO2-free alternatives such as nuclear power are sometimes undesirable and other solutions – such as green hydrogen or molten salt reactors – are developed, but are far from being suitable for everyday use.
Which professional groups are involved in the development and production of wind energy?
Wind power is a domain of engineering. Mechanical engineers are just as involved in development and production as electrical engineers. Physicists, mathematicians and chemists are also involved in research and development. The job of electrical engineer for wind energy is also becoming more and more important.
Highly qualified service technicians and mechanics specialising in energy generation, turbine technology and system hydraulics come into play for assembly and maintenance. Computer scientists and other IT specialists design the control software and enable technicians to maintain the wind turbines remotely.
Meteorologists, biologists and landscape planners are also indirectly involved. Their task is to track down suitable locations, assess them for their wind capture potential and evaluate any effects on ecology and the landscape.
What are the tasks of an electrical engineer for wind energy?
An electrical engineer for wind energy has the task of researching wind power from the electrical engineering side, continuously developing it, constructing it and ultimately installing it. Together with mechanical engineers, they work on new technical solutions to further improve wind energy and increase its public acceptance. The planning of wind power plants as well as the installation and maintenance of the electrical infrastructure on site also fall within the scope of this professional group.
What skills should an electrical engineer for wind energy have?
The basic requirement is a degree in an engineering subject. Complete knowledge of turbine technology, hydraulics and energy generation is indispensable; competencies in mathematics, physics and materials science must be above average. An electrical engineer for wind energy is naturally very familiar with reading, understanding and creating electrical circuit diagrams. Candidates should also be very well informed about other energy technologies such as photovoltaics, geothermal energy or nuclear power, but also about electrical engineering in general.
Specialised engineers should also have a number of soft skills, including problem-solving and networked thinking, stress resistance and creativity. Anyone who frequently takes part in public discourse should have a certain tolerance for frustration, as the topics of wind power and climate change are passionate, often emotionally-charged, and sometimes uninformed. Because wind energy, like global warming, is a global issue, fluency in English is essential. Skills in IT and business are usually also desired.
In which sectors and companies does an electrical engineer for wind energy work?
The main employers are wind power companies that develop, build and market wind turbines. However, electrical engineers for wind energy are also employed in administration, where approval procedures for wind energy projects are in progress. This also applies to institutes and universities that are intensively researching the electricity generation of tomorrow.