Boston's Wind Technology Testing Center, funded in part with Recovery Act funds, will be first in U.S. to test blades up to 300 feet long. | Photo Courtesy of Massachusetts Clean Energy Center
America's first-of-its-kind wind blade testing facility — capable of testing a blade as long as a football field — almost never was.
Because of funding woes, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), which owns and will operate the testing center, was going to scale down to a smaller facility, a move that would have sent American manufacturers elsewhere for testing and stunted a domestic wind industry that's moving towards bigger blades.
"That is just unacceptable," says Rahul Yarala, executive director of the Wind Technology Testing Center at the MassCEC, the state-funded organization created to spur economic growth for Massachusetts in the clean energy sector. Instead of three testing units, they were going to scale back to two, as well as shrink the footprint of the building. A smaller building couldn't accommodate 300-foot blades.
"But then the [U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)] came in and said, ‘If we're going to do this, let's do it right,'" Yarala says.
The $40 million center was given new life with $25 million in funds from the DOE under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The facility, set to open later this year at the Massachusett's Port Authority in Boston, will support the United States' growing wind industry by helping to reduce blade and turbine costs and attract companies to design, manufacture and test their products domestically.
The 50,000 sq. ft. facility will also promote the growth of U.S. companies that are part of the wind turbine production supply chain —including fiberglass distributors and advanced composite materials manufacturers.
"With this project, we are not only catching up [with the other countries that have large-scale testing centers], but we are going to get ahead the curve," Yarala says.
Yarala says the facility itself is expected to create up to 300 construction jobs, about 30 design and eight administrative positions when it is completed.
As the amount of energy generated from wind grows, so do the size of wind turbine blades. In the 1980s, blades were 65 feet long. Now blades are about 200 feet in the U.S. and, in the future, blades will be roughly the size of a football field.
Bigger blades mean more watts, but before any blades get attached to turbines, they need to be tested and certified.
Europe and Brazil, the only places with facilities large enough and qualified enough to undertake such tasks, are expensive options for American blade manufacturers looking to cost-effectively bring new products to the U.S. market.
The new American facility, which will test about 12 blades a year, will conduct two primary tests — static and fatigue — as part of an ISO, or international standard organization, certification for wind blades.
Blades are bolted to a 12-foot-thick slab of concrete that stands 40 feet tall and 80 feet wide. The static test determines the strength of the blade to find its breaking point and takes about two weeks. The fatigue test, which lasts three to six months, simulates the wear and tear of a blade, similar to repeatedly bending a paper clip back and forth.
Yarala says the Wind Technology Testing Center's first test run may take place in January 2011, with the first commercial test in March.
The facility will also provide a close testing lab for academia and scientists working on new designs and bolster an emerging offshore wind industry in Massachusetts and beyond, Yarala says. Most offshore wind farms in Europe and other parts of the world have blades 300 feet and up.
The 300-foot blades, which Yarala says will hit the U.S. market in the next 10 years, will be used on 5 MW turbines and up. Today's 200-foot blades are mainly affixed to 1.5 MW and 2 MW turbines.
"This kind of infrastructure will help bring down the costs and make the [wind industry] more competitive," Yarala says. "It's going to help companies test a lot more, and help them get into the wind turbine market."