30 years harnessing the power of the wind
The power of the wind can move objects, push and transform. And, thanks to today’s technology, it is a decisive factor alongside us in the energy transition, the road towards a future free from fossil fuels.
Our Group understood this some time ago: indeed, the first wind turbine in Granadilla in Spain was installed 30 years ago, and it’s still operating today. The year 2008 saw the creation of Enel Green Power, the Group’s company specialized in the development and management of activities relating to energy generation from renewable sources.
Wind power, a fast-paced evolution
Technological innovation is driving the energy transition. Wind power in particular, is evolving at a rapid pace, leading to turbines and towers that are significantly larger, more powerful and efficient than before and a progressive yet constant reduction in costs. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) the LCOE (levelized cost of energy) for onshore wind power fell by 39% between 2010 and 2019, while for offshore plants this reduction was 29%.
In spite of the fact that the average lifespan of a wind farm is no more than 20/25 years, the farm in Granadilla is still operational after 30 years, during which time it has produced 9GWh, a performance comparable with more modern plants.
Today the world’s largest wind turbines have diameters of around 200 metres and towers that are over 150 metres high. While the turbine in Granadilla has a diameter of just 20 metres, the rotor blades that EGP is installing in its latest projects span up to 158 metres.
In addition to the dimensions, the materials are also important. Enel Green Power is deeply committed to finding new lives for rotor blades from decommissioned wind turbines. As well as the repowering project that extends the working life of plants, of which Granadilla is one example, we’re developing innovative materials capable of facilitating the recycling process, once the turbines reach the end of their working lives, while also endeavouring to improve their performance. The main attention is focused on the rotor blades which, on account of current technology, are made of materials that are difficult to recycle. In actual fact, we have launched two open challenges to gather ideas for recycling and reuse of the wind turbines on our Open Innovability crowdsourcing platform. We have also launched a scouting initiative to seek out startups with innovative proposals. At the same time, we’re looking at other sectors that could take advantage of the recovered materials: for example, the recycled fibres from the rotor blades could be put to use in different fields, from marine engineering to building insulation.
Other important technological modifications concern the blade rotation systems. Today they move in response to wind levels, but in the past they could only function at a fixed pace. This advance allows them to generate energy when the wind is low or high, up to speeds of 25 metres per second, which would have been unthinkable for the fixed rotors that couldn’t produce energy in such conditions. The more modern wind turbines can also operate in “island” mode, i.e. they are capable of starting up without requiring an initial energy activation. This means that they can continue to operate even when the grid is experiencing malfunctions or, alternatively they can produce energy for the grid if there is a power blackout.
Another important development relates to the capacity of the turbines that have passed from an initial 150-200 kW to the current 5MW, climbing to even 10-12MW for the offshore plants. When a wind plant is repowered, each new turbine installed has the equivalent capacity of 10 of its predecessors.
EGP has always been at the forefront of innovation in wind power, focusing on the technology and continuously improving the management of its wind farms. This strategy has enabled us to constantly extend the overall installed capacity, which today amounts to 13.6GW, with an average age of the wind generators of 10 years. In the future we expect to achieve an installed capacity of over 31GW by 2025, when the current fleet of turbines aged over 20 years will number more than 1500.
The future of wind power; more efficient plants rather than larger turbines
The process of improving the performance of the wind plants will continue for many years: we will see rotor blades that are more aerodynamic, components that are more reliable, new materials or materials that are reusable, a general digitalisation of the system, fewer faults and improved integration into the grid.
The trend for continuously increasing the diameter of the wind turbines, however, seems to be slowing: we appear to have reached a break-even point between the benefits of large turbines and their production and maintenance costs. The emphasis is therefore shifting towards a new paradigm in this technology, with wind generators positioned at an altitude of 3 or 4 kilometres, or mini wind turbines to install on site for self-production.
The path ahead is clear but there is still a very long way to go. We intend to continue to be one of the key players in this challenge, with increasingly competitive, efficient and safe solutions. Our goal is to lead the development process of the new generation of wind plants. We want to promote the culture of sustainability, foster the circular economy across the sector and create an increasingly virtuous circle. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, wrote: “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.” Just like the fire of our passion for a cleaner world.