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Meet the internet-enabled, big data-crunching, energy-storing smart wind turbine

Todd Woody

The rap against wind energy is that it’s fickle, generating massive amounts of electricity one hour and next to nothing the next. That plays havoc with the power grid and the problem is only growing as wind becomes a bigger part of the power mix. The US, for example, installed a record 13,200 megawatts (MW) of wind energy capacity in 2012 and in some states wind supplies more than 20% of electricity generation. China, meanwhile, intends to add 18,000 MW of wind capacity this year.

But what if every wind turbine became a node in an energy internet, communicating with the grid and each other to adjust electricity production while storing and releasing electricity as needed? That’s the idea behind General Electric’s new “brilliant” turbine, the first three of which the company said today will be installed at a Texas wind farm operated by Invenergy.

The 2.5-MW windmill is something of a technological leap in an industry where turbines have gotten bigger and bigger but not necessarily smarter. The turbine’s software captures tens of thousands of data points each second on wind and grid conditions and then adjusts production, storing electricity in an attached 50 kilowatt-hour sodium nickel chloride battery. If, say, a wind farm is generating too much electricity to absorbed by the grid—not an uncommon occurrence in gusty west Texas—it can store the electricity in the battery. When the wind dies down, the electricity can be released from the battery and put back on the grid.

“This provides a path for lowering the cost of energy even more,” Keith Longtin, general manager of GE’s wind product line, told Quartz. “We think by being able to integrate the storage into the turbine and by being able to provide predictable power it’s going to minimize a lot of the balancing the grid has to do today.”

That’s also good for the environment. Currently, utilities rely on carbon-spewing natural gas-fired power plants to balance electricity generated from intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The turbine’s algorithms predict what electricity generation and demand will be over the next 15 minutes to an hour and adjust production accordingly. The battery can store up to 60 minutes of electricity.

That could mean more revenue for wind farm operators. When turbines generate more electricity than the grid can accommodate, that power is wasted. If they can store that power for later use, then they can get paid for the power. And some state regulators are willing to pay for so-called frequency regulation services, where a power producer stores and releases electricity to help keep the grid balanced as demand and supply fluctuates.

GE declined to say how much the brilliant turbine costs compared to a conventional windmill. But the technology may prove attractive to wind farm operators as states like California begin to require utilities to provide energy storage when building new power plants.

Longtin said GE also has its sights on the European market, where a number of countries are considering legislation to require power producers to provide predictable electricity generation.

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