Grand challenges in the science of wind energy

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Science  25 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6464, eaau2027
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2027

A multifaceted future for wind power

Modern wind turbines already represent a tightly optimized confluence of materials science and aerodynamic engineering. Veers et al. review the challenges and opportunities for further expanding this technology, with an emphasis on the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. They highlight the need to better understand atmospheric physics in the regions where taller turbines will operate as well as the materials constraints associated with the scale-up. The mutual interaction of turbine sites with one another and with the evolving features of the overall electricity grid will furthermore necessitate a systems approach to future development.

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Structured Abstract


A growing global population and an increasing demand for energy services are expected to result in substantially greater deployment of clean energy sources. Wind energy is already playing a role as a mainstream source of electricity, driven by decades of scientific discovery and technology development. Additional research and exploration of design options are needed to drive innovation to meet future demand and functionality. The growing scale and deployment expansion will, however, push the technology into areas of both scientific and engineering uncertainty. This Review explores grand challenges in wind energy research that must be addressed to enable wind energy to supply one-third to one-half, or even more, of the world’s electricity needs.


Drawing from a recent international workshop, we identify three grand challenges in wind energy research that require further progress from the scientific community: (i) improved understanding of the physics of atmospheric flow in the critical zone of wind power plant operation, (ii) materials and system dynamics of individual wind turbines, and (iii) optimization and control of fleets of wind plants comprising hundreds of individual generators working synergistically within the larger electric grid system. These grand challenges are interrelated, so progress in each domain must build on concurrent advances in the other two. Characterizing the wind power plant operating zone in the atmosphere will be essential to designing the next generation of even-larger wind turbines and achieving dynamic control of the machines. Enhanced forecasting of the nature of the atmospheric inflow will subsequently enable control of the plant in the manner necessary for grid support. These wind energy science challenges bridge previously separable geospatial and temporal scales that extend from the physics of the atmosphere to flexible aeroelastic and mechanical systems more than 200 m in diameter and, ultimately, to the electrical integration with and support for a continent-sized grid system.


Meeting the grand research challenges in wind energy science will enable the wind power plant of the future to supply many of the anticipated electricity system needs at a low cost. The interdependence of the grand challenges requires expansion of integrated and cross-disciplinary research efforts. Methods for handling and streamlining exchange of vast quantities of information across many disciplines (both experimental and computational) will also be crucial to enabling successful integrated research. Moreover, research in fields related to computational and data science will support the research community in seeking to further integrate models and data across scales and disciplines.

The cascade of scales underlying wind energy scientific grand challenges.

Length scales from weather systems at a global level down the boundary layer of a wind turbine airfoil and time scales from seasonal fluctuations in weather to subsecond dynamic control and balancing of electrical generation and demand must be understood and managed.



Harvested by advanced technical systems honed over decades of research and development, wind energy has become a mainstream energy resource. However, continued innovation is needed to realize the potential of wind to serve the global demand for clean energy. Here, we outline three interdependent, cross-disciplinary grand challenges underpinning this research endeavor. The first is the need for a deeper understanding of the physics of atmospheric flow in the critical zone of plant operation. The second involves science and engineering of the largest dynamic, rotating machines in the world. The third encompasses optimization and control of fleets of wind plants working synergistically within the electricity grid. Addressing these challenges could enable wind power to provide as much as half of our global electricity needs and perhaps beyond.

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