NREL’s Top 2020 Wind Program Accomplishments Demonstrate A Clear Vision For Wind Energy Advancement


As a leader in wind energy research for nearly 50 years, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is uniquely positioned to address the three “grand challenges” that will drive innovation in the wind industry: gaining improved understanding of the wind resource and flow in the region of the atmosphere where wind power plants operate, addressing the structural and system dynamics of wind turbines, and designing and operating wind plants to support grid reliability.

The NREL wind program’s top 2020 achievements demonstrate not only the laboratory’s scientific and research abilities, but also its clear vision for wind energy advancement. 

1. New Reference Turbine Gives Offshore Wind an Upward Draft

Market predictions show rapid growth for offshore wind turbines over the next 10 years, which will require tools that can help engineers and designers develop better-performing, more cost-competitive wind turbines. To meet this need, NREL released the International Energy Agency Wind Technology Collaboration Programme (IEA Wind) 15-MW reference wind turbine, developed in collaboration with the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Maine. This open-source model will provide industry, researchers, and academics with a valuable benchmark for the next generation of offshore turbines, upon which future innovation can be measured.

2. ARIES Powers Flatirons Campus Through Outage

NREL’s new utility-scale substation, which supports the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) research platform, experienced a utility-scale emergency. An early-September outage at NREL’s Flatirons Campus cut power to the entire site, including its servers, offices, and research hardware. ARIES successfully repowered the campus exactly as envisioned for renewable microgrid systems of the future, and the campus ran on 100% renewable energy for 24 hours. 

An aerial photograph of a energy laboratory campus with wind turbines.
NREL’s unique Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) research platform got the chance to prove its mettle when it successfully repowered the Flatirons Campus after an outage in September. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

3. ExaWind Supercharges Wind Power Plant Simulations on Land and at Sea

Designing and installing wind power plants is an expensive and time-consuming venture. To help address these hurdles, NREL developed ExaWind, an open-source suite of physics codes and libraries that enables multifidelity simulation of wind turbines and wind power plants. These capabilities will help researchers tackle the intricacies of wind plant flow dynamics and reduce the cost of wind-generated electricity—ultimately facilitating more widespread deployment of wind energy in the United States.

4. Offshore Wind Research Yields Promising Data and Innovative ToolsA photograph of three offshore wind turbines in the ocean.

In 2020, NREL research yielded data indicating an optimistic future for U.S. offshore wind, as well as the tools to help reach that future. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Over the past 5 years, offshore wind energy has developed into a robust industry characterized by rapidly evolving technologies and decreasing costs. In 2020, NREL researchers led offshore wind advancement with studies like The Potential Impact of Offshore Wind Energy on a Future Power System in the U.S. NortheastPDFwhich indicated that offshore wind energy could have a significant impact on power system performance in the Northeastern United States, and NREL’s 2019 Offshore Wind Technology Data Update, which shows advancing technology, falling prices, and increased federal and state support for the U.S. offshore wind industry. In addition, NREL researchers developed innovative tools like the Offshore Renewables Balance-of-system and Installation Tool (ORBIT), which can be used to evaluate how expenses related to systems other than the capital expenditures of the turbine vary as project characteristics, technology solutions, and installation methodologies change.

5. NREL Offshore Wind Plant Optimization Boosts Performance, Reduces Costs

Researchers at NREL are taking a plant-level, systems-engineering approach to maximize offshore wind systems’ energy output, lifespan, and economic feasibility while minimizing forces on individual wind turbines. Using the FLOw Redirection and Induction in Steady State (FLORIS) model to devise plant control and wake steering strategies and combining wake steering with collective consensus controls to increase energy productivity, NREL’s wind plant optimization innovations will help spur the growth of U.S. offshore wind.

6. NREL Invites Turbine Manufacturers To Help Advance Distributed Wind Energy Innovation

In support of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) collaborative Microgrids, Infrastructure Resilience, and Advanced Controls Launchpad (MIRACL) project, NREL invited wind turbine manufacturers to express their interest in installing distributed-scale wind turbines as research hardware at NREL’s Flatirons Campus. The new turbines will advance distributed wind energy innovation and help build wind assets at distributed scale as part of the larger ARIES platform.

7. NREL Research Makes Skies and Seas Safer for Wildlife

In 2020, NREL researchers developed new technologies and techniques to monitor and mitigate wind energy’s impact on coastal ecosystems. From evaluating the effectiveness of ultrasonic deterrents in reducing bat-turbine interactions to measuring, modeling, and mitigating the effects of wind projects on underwater environments, NREL researchers are working hard to find solutions that keep wildlife safe above and below the ocean surface.

8. Workforce Programs Help Prepare, Connect the Wind Workforce

While the wind energy industry employment grew more than 50% from 2015 to the end of 2019, 68% of wind energy employers have difficulty filling entry-level jobs, and 83% of students or recent graduates who applied say it is hard to find a position in wind energy. In 2020, NREL helped bridge this wind workforce gap through the DOE Collegiate Wind Competition, which provides college students hands-on, real-world wind energy technology and project development experience, and through research that illuminates wind industry hiring processes and perspectives from job seekers. 

A student prepares a wind turbine inside a wind tunnel.
NREL helps prepare the future wind energy workforce through the U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition, which provides college students the opportunity to build the skills and industry connections that will help them find careers in the wind industry. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

9. Maps Provide Easy-To-Understand Snapshots of Wind Resources

A map that displays multiyear average land-based wind resources available in New England.
This wind resource map shows the multiyear average land-based wind speed at 100 meters above surface level in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. With funding from DOE, NREL developed a new series of wind resource maps to help audiences quickly and easily understand an area’s comprehensive wind resource potential. Cartography by Billy J. Roberts, NREL

As states consider shifting more electricity generation to wind power and other clean energy sources, developers need to consider several factors before putting turbines in the ground. With funding from DOE, experts at NREL created a new series of wind resource maps that provide easy-to-understand snapshots to help regional governments, businesses, and civic leaders assess whether wind power makes sense for their communities.

10. Analysis and Optimization Tools Help Propel Hybrid Energy DeploymentPDF

Hybrid power plants—those that combine wind, solar, storage, and other renewable technologies—show promise for providing significant value to the electric grid system. NREL is developing analysis and optimization tools to help plant owners design more cost-efficient and grid-friendly hybrid renewable energy plants, develop economies of scale, and increase their system value. This work will help propel the commercialization of hybrid power plants that can increase the potential for deployment of renewable energy in the United States and around the world.

In many ways, 2020 was a year like no other, but one thing remained constant: NREL’s commitment to addressing the challenges of wind energy innovation and helping build a more sustainable future.

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