Engineers are pushing the envelope when it comes to the scale and dimensions of modern wind turbines while also incorporating smart features to radically enhance their performance.

While wind turbines are currently the largest rotating structures built by industrialized societies, the ongoing trend is toward even further gains in scale as part of efforts to increase their power and economy.

Turbines of increased dimensions are capable of generating greater power from available wind resources. Increases in turbine diameter enables them to sweep a greater surface area, while increases in height means they can avail themselves of faster winds at higher altitudes.

These advantages have led to continuous increases in the size of wind turbines over the past few decades, from around 45 metres in diameter 20 years ago to upwards of 120 metres today. Towers have also increased in height, stretching up to 90 metres tall, while companies are currently developing turbines with capacities of up to 20 megawatts and rotor diameters of around 150 metres.

“We haven’t hit the barrier yet for how large these machines can be,” Paul Veers, chief engineer of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Centre, told ASME.

Veers points out the increasing popularity of offshore wind farms has also facilitated increases in the size of wind power turbines.

“The only restriction for size on land is the difficulty in transporting parts. Offshore, wind turbines continue to get larger because components can be brought in by barge,” he said.

In addition to efficiency improvements via raw increases in scale, engineers are also improving turbines via the incorporation of sophisticated “smart” features, which comprise one of the most important advances in the development of wind technology.

Smart wind turbines make use of embedded sensors, data processing algorithms and complex computer modelling to adjust to changes in wind conditions, permitting them to make optimized use of available climate resources.

According to Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering Douglas Adams, the enhanced capabilities of smart turbines promise to radically change wind power’s potential.

“This adaptive capability is a game-changer because it allows the turbine to maximize the power it produces, while simultaneously ensuring the reliability of the turbine is maintained,” he said.