As blades get longer, Charlestown testing center seeks to expand
Wind turbine technology moving faster than expected
WHEN THE WIND Technology Testing Center in Charlestown was built in 2011, the longest wind turbine blades in the world were around 65 meters long, or 215 feet. So the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center constructed the blade testing building to be 90 meters long, around 300 feet – about the size of a football field.
“We built this assuming that blades were going to get larger, and so 85 to 90 meters seemed like a reasonable length to expect at the time,” said Robert FitzPatrick, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. At that length, the testing center was the largest of its kind in North America.
Fast forward a decade, and General Electric wanted to test its newest blade – a 107-meter-long behemoth that will be used in its Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The testing center had to cut part of the blade off to fit it in the building. While blades can be tested without the tip, it is not ideal, and engineers need to account for the adjusted weight.
Massachusetts Clean Energy Center CEO Jennifer Daloisio said the facility was built with the knowledge that it would eventually have to be expanded, but the technology advanced faster than expected. “Essentially, the facility needs to be almost doubled in length and doubled in height to accommodate the wind blades of both the current and the future projects,” Daloisio said.
The US Department of Energy gave MassCEC a $1.85 million grant to buy equipment needed to test longer blades and begin designing the expansion. Gov. Charlie Baker, in his recently released economic development bill, proposed spending $70 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to cover the full cost of the expansion. That funding is part of $750 million the Baker administration wants to spend on clean energy innovation.
Daloisio estimates that once funding is secured, it will take 18 months to finalize the design and complete construction. Under federal law, if money from the American Rescue Plan Act is used, that money must be spent by 2026. Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Beth Card said there is a “a time sensitivity here” in getting the Legislature to approve the funding so the project can advance.
As Massachusetts, and the country, try to reduce the use of fossil fuels, wind energy has emerged as a potential key alternative. Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law in 2016 requiring electricity companies to get a portion of their energy from wind by 2027. Two major project developers – Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind – have obtained leases to build offshore wind projects in federal waters off Martha’s Vineyard.
Card said in an interview that the expansion of the Wind Technology Testing Center fits into the administration’s goal of making Massachusetts a global hub for clean energy innovation by investing in workforce training, technology, research, and development.
“We know clean and renewable energy is key to meeting our decarbonization goals,” Card said. “If we want Massachusetts to continue to thrive in that area, we need to have not only the people who are skilled in operating various clean energy components and the technology related to offshore wind, we need to have the infrastructure to support it. We need to test it, we need to do research, we need ports that can be utilized for housing these types of big pieces of infrastructure.”
“I think we’re at a place now of really being at a turning point in our ability to make these investments and continue to be a leader in this space,” Card said. “The $70 million we’re talking about is a really important piece of being able to do that work in Massachusetts.”
They are also rare. Lowdon said the Charlestown testing center is one of the three largest in the world, the largest one being in the United Kingdom. In the United States, there are other centers at Clemson University in South Carolina and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. The country’s biggest wind turbine manufacturers – companies like GE and Siemens – test their blades in Massachusetts. The center is not used to test each blade, but to try out new models and designs.
The center itself is a cavernous warehouse space with blades strung up to the ceiling with rods and nuts. Hydraulic power operates the machinery. Cranes and pulleys move items around. Each blade weighs between 35,000 and 100,000 pounds. The center is on the Boston Harbor, so the blades can arrive at a deep-water port via ship if they are too big to be transported by truck.
On a recent day, staff were preparing to take down a blade for repairs. It would take 2.5 hours to loosen the 72 rods holding up the 50,000-pound blade – using the same type of technology that holds up Boston’s Zakim Bridge.
The blades spend several months in the testing center. One test bends the blade to simulate a strong wind gust, making sure it has flexibility to withstand the bending. Another test flaps the blade up and down continuously, while another involves sliding a weight back and forth on the blade to ensure it can withstand pressure. The idea, FitzPatrick said, is to run a blade through the stress it will undergo during its lifetime over the course of a few months. Sometimes the manufacturer will ask the center to bend a blade until it breaks. Sensors are placed on the blades, and data from the sensors is monitored by a bank of computers overlooking the floor.
The center, which has eight employees, is run by the quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. It cost around $40 million to build, using a mix of federal grants and stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and state money. Now, it pays for its operations through fees it charges manufacturing companies to test their blades.
The challenge is that over the last decade, the blades have gotten longer. Turbines located on land remain relatively small, but blades used in the growing offshore wind industry have lengthened significantly. When the testing center was built, Lowdon said, a 4-megawatt turbine would have been considered a big machine; now, there are 14-megawatt turbines.
Lowdon said the longer blades generate more wind power, and therefore are more profitable. Longer blades also mean fewer blades are needed to generate a sizeable amount of power. “If you double the length of a wind turbine blade, you increase the power you get from it by a factor of four,” Lowdon said.
State Rep. Jeffrey Roy, the House chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, said the technology advanced far faster than anticipated. “What we’re seeing is rapid changes in the technology and the size of these turbines and the blades,” Roy said. “The technology is evolving so rapidly and the materials that are being used in the blades are becoming lighter and stronger so that we can build greater blades, and I don’t think anybody anticipated back 10 years ago that we’d see them increase in such magnitude.”
House and Senate lawmakers are still examining Baker’s economic development bill, but House Speaker Ron Mariano has made expanding the offshore wind industry a top priority of his.“We are trying to make Massachusetts a leader in offshore wind in the nation, and having a facility of this type that can do this testing is part of what’s necessary to be the world leader or the nation leader in offshore wind,” Roy said.
State Sen. Michael Barrett, Senate chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, said having the testing center gives Massachusetts a competitive advantage in becoming a national center for offshore wind. Already, Charlestown is the premier testing site for the East Coast offshore wind industry, and he said the expansion is necessary to maintain that advantage. “We’ve got to have a facility here in Massachusetts that can accommodate the largest products out there,” Barrett said. “You’ve got to keep modernizing just to keep pace.”