Winds of change

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It’s not hard, in this down economy, to get excited about the wind energy industry. There’s the prospect of a green economy, green-collar jobs, a new economic expansion based on alternative energy and, for countries heavily dependent on imported oil, fulfillment of dreams of energy independence. In the U.S., for example, President Obama has put the muscle of the federal government behind wind energy development, American oil magnate T. Boone Pickins is calling for a wind revolution (click here), and the state of Texas appears determined to change our very notion of “farming” with its breakneck pace of turbine installation. The composites industry, particularly in the U.S., the European Union, India and China, has happily joined this parade, glad to see millions of tons of glass and resin go into wind blades for years to come.

Windpower 2009 was the American Wind Energy Assn.’s biggest show yet, attracting 1,200 exhibitors and 23,000 attendees. There was, in the speechifying at the show, an understandable glee that the moment has arrived when a good idea finally gains the recognition it deserves. Wind energy’s “goods” have been well chronicled over the years: The energy source — wind — is free. Wind turbines produce no pollutants. Were it not for cost, wind energy would have been embraced in the U.S. long ago. But it’s fast becoming cost-competitive with other fuel sources, and this timely calculus has vastly accelerated growth. Blade manufacturers suddenly have some serious catching-up to do if they are to produce the anticipated 140,000 wind blades required throughout the world annually by 2017 (that’s 383 blades per day). Unfortunately, many are building blades using technology originally conceived to mold massive, often one-off boat hulls: Lots of people laying hundreds of cubic yards of fabric or thousands of pounds of prepreg and carefully cut and scored core. Bagging and consolidating the layup and, in the case of dry fabric, infusing tons of resin. Waiting hours or even days for cure.  Demolding blade segments, then hand-applying gallons of adhesive to assemble a finished blade. Problem is, rotor blades are closer kin, technically, to aircraft wings than boat hulls. Blademakers need to take a page from the aircraft industry and migrate to high-speed, high-quality manufacturing processes, and sooner rather than later. Several machinery manufacturers have figured this out (see this issue's "Work in Progress") and are trying to adapt for wind blade manufacturing the automated tape laying and fiber placement technologies they developed for aircraft wingskins.

This is a smart move, but can’t succeed if done in isolation. The situation demands a wholesale conversion to mass production. It will require leaps of faith from everyone in the composites supply chain — software writers, toolmakers, resin, reinforcement and core suppliers, and providers of cutting, kitting and CNC machining and finishing equipment. Call it “composites supply chain optimization” or “composites-wind harmonization,” each contributor must step up with a product that can be integrated into the automated whole. While wind energy promises the composites community an enduring, profitable ride, a lot rests on our ability to keep up with demand and mint wind blades that reflect the best composites have to offer.  That’s an outcome neither automatic nor easy.