Grand challenges in the science of wind energy

This review Appeared in the Journal “Science”, one of the premier Journals in the world.

Authored by Paul Veers1,*, and 28 other scientists.  Science  25 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6464, eaau2027
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2027

I have copied the abstract and tried to sum up the salient points. Basically, the success of Wind (and Solar) energy, and the predicted growth of the industry, has led to new challenges. Innovations are needed to handle the predicted future demand for clean energy.


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.


Abundant, affordable energy in many forms has enabled notable human achievements, including modern food and transportation infrastructure. Broad-based access to affordable and clean energy will be critical to future human achievements and an elevated global standard of living. However, by 2050, the global population will reach an estimated 9.8 billion, up from ~7.6 billion in 2017 (1). Moreover, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates suggest that annual global electricity demand could exceed 38,000 terawatt-hours per year by 2050, up from ~25,000 terawatt-hours in 2017 (2). The demand for low- or no-carbon technologies for electricity is increasing, as is the need for electrifying other energy sectors, such as heating and cooling and transport (24). As a result of these two partially coupled megatrends, additional sources of low-cost, clean energy are experiencing increasing demand around the globe. With a broadly available resource and zero-cost fuel, as well as exceptionally low life-cycle pollutant emissions, wind energy has the potential to be a primary contributor to the growing clean energy needs of the global community.

During the past decade, the cost of three major electricity sources—wind power, solar power, and natural gas—has decreased substantially. Wind and solar are attractive because their low life-cycle emissions offer public health and broader environmental benefits. Leading energy forecasters such as consultancies, nongovernmental organizations, and major energy companies—and specifically BNEF, DNV GL, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and BP—anticipate continued price parity among all of these sources, which will likely result in combined wind and solar supplying between one- and two-thirds of the total electricity demand and wind-only shares accounting for one-quarter to one-third across the globe by 2050 (36). Tapping the potential terawatts of wind energy that could drive the economic realization of these forecasts and subsequently moving from hundreds of terawatt-hours per year to petawatt-hours per year from wind and solar resources could provide an array of further economic and environmental benefits to both local and global communities.

From a business perspective, at just over 51 gigawatts of new wind installations in 2018 (7) and more than half a terawatt of operating capacity, the global investment in wind energy is now ~$100 billion (U.S. dollars) per annum. The energy consultant DNV GL predicts that wind energy demand and the scale of deployment will grow by a factor of 10 by 2050, bringing the industry to the trillion-dollar scale (6) and positioning wind as one of the primary sources of the world’s electricity generation.

However, to remain economically attractive for investors and consumers, the cost of energy from wind must continue to decrease (8, 9). Moreover, as deployment of variable-output wind and solar generation infrastructure increases, new challenges surface related to the adequacy of generation capacity on a long-term basis and short-term balancing of the systems—both of which are critical to maintaining future grid system stability and reliability (1012).

A future in which wind energy contributes one-third to more than one-half of consumed electricity, and in which local levels of wind-derived power may exceed 100% of local demand, will require a paradigm shift in how we think about, develop, and manage the electric grid system (1014). The associated transformation of the power system in high-renewables scenarios will require simultaneous management of large quantities of weather-driven, variable-output generation as well as evolving and dynamic consumption patterns.

A key aspect of this future system is the availability of large quantities of near-zero marginal cost energy, albeit with uncertain timing. With abundant near-zero marginal cost energy, more flexibility in the overall electricity system will allow many different end users to access these “cheap” energy resources. Potential use cases for this energy could entail charging a large number of electric vehicles, providing inexpensive storage at different system sizes (consumer to industrial) and time scales (days to months), or channeling into chemicals or other manufactured products (sometimes referred to as “power-to-X” applications).

A second key aspect of this future system is the transition from an electric grid system centered on traditional synchronous generation power plants to one that is converter dominated (15). This latter paradigm reduces the physical inertia in the system currently provided by traditional power plants while increasing reliance on information and digital signals to maintain the robustness and power quality of the modern grid (12).

Here are some interesting figures from the this Review:

Fig. 1 Global cumulative installed capacity (in gigawatts) for wind energy and estimated levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for the U.S. interior region in cents per kilowatt-hour from 1980 to the present.Historical LCOE data are from (17) and (20) and have been verified for all but 5 years with the U.S. wind industry statistics database detailed in (17). LCOE data have been smoothed with a combination of polynomial best fit and linear interpolations to emphasize the long-term trends in wind energy costs. Historical installed capacity data are from the database detailed in (17), the Global Wind Energy Council, and the American Wind Energy Association.
Fig. 2 Wind turbine blade innovation comparing a modern commercial blade (top) and a commercial blade from the mid-1980s (bottom) scaled to the same length.The modern blade is 90% lighter than the scaled 1980s technology.
Fig. 3 Relevant wind power scales across space—from large-scale atmospheric effects in local weather at the mesoscale to inter- and intraplant flows and topography at the microscale.
Fig. 4 Wind turbine blades are complex composite shell structures in which small-scale manufacturing flaws can grow because of the incessant turbulence-driven loading that can cause large-scale problems.
Fig. 5 Power generated by the weather-driven plant must connect to the electrical grid and support the stability, reliability, and operational needs on time scales ranging from microseconds (for managing disturbances) to decades (for long-term planning).
Fig. 6 A spectrum of science, engineering, and mathematics disciplines that, if integrated, can comprehensively address the grand challenges in wind energy science.