NASA Spinoff

Modeling Innovations Advance Wind Energy Industry

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

One morning in 1990, a group of Glenn Research Center (then Lewis Research Center) employees arrived to find their workspace upended by an apparent hurricane. Papers were scattered, lights blown out. All eyes turned to the door connecting the office to its neighbor: a 20-foot wind tunnel.

The employees did not know it, but they had Dr. Larry Viterna to thank for the state of their workspace. An innovation by the NASA researcher may have led to the accidental trashing of their office, but it would go on to benefit the entire field of wind energy.

altViterna joined NASA in 1977, during a time when the country was in an energy crisis. Growing anxiety over fuel costs and environmental impacts led the U.S. Government to explore alternative and renewable energy sources. In a time prior to the formation of the Department of Energy (DOE), the government turned to other agencies like NASA to develop solutions. Glenn had a history of energy research stemming from its work in fuel-efficient aeronautics during World War II and in alternative fuels and related aerospace engines at the start of the Space Age in the 1950s. When Viterna joined the Center, it had already assumed the lead role in the Nation’s wind energy program. NASA’s goal was to develop technology for harnessing the wind’s power and transfer it to private industry.

“Our center had an expertise in propellers, propulsion, rotating equipment, and power systems,” making Glenn a natural choice for the job, explains Viterna. The Center’s efforts, he says, ultimately laid the foundations for much of the wind technologies and industry that exist today.

Glenn constructed its initial experimental 100-kilowatt (kW) wind turbine at the Center’s Plum Brook Station facility in Sandusky, Ohio in 1975. The Mod­-0 turbine was a two-bladed, horizontal turbine. By 1978, the 2-megawatt (MW) Mod-1, the world’s first multimegawatt wind turbine, was developed—capable of providing electricity to thousands of homes. Successive experimental models (13 in all) were built throughout the country. Viterna notes that these were also record setting in size and output; the 4-MW capability of the WTS-4 turbine, built in 1982 in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, was not surpassed for about 25 years.

“That’s how far ahead the program was in terms of developing this technology,” Viterna says.

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NASA’s efforts also led to other industry innovations that are standard today. As Glenn researchers explored ways of reducing the weight and cost of turbine structures, they developed steel tube towers that replaced the rigid truss towers traditionally used. “Today, virtually every large wind turbine uses a steel, tubular tower, which was novel technology at the time,” says Viterna.