Unlocking Wind’s Potential: Supercomputing’s Grand Challenge

By Tiffany Trader

August 30, 2017

A report released last week by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — “Enabling the SMART Wind Power Plant of the Future Through Science-Based Innovation“– asserts that supercomputing-led scientific advances could cut the unsubsidized cost of wind energy in half by the year 2030. With science and computing driving plant-level innovations, wind could supply the United States with 20 percent of its energy needs by 2030 and nearly half of its total energy needs by 2050, according to the authors.

Individual states, notable Iowa and South Dakota, already get more than 30 percent of their energy from wind, but nationwide wind supplies just 5.5 percent of national energy needs. Making wind cost-competitive with fossil fuels is key to boosting adoption of this abundant and secure energy source and that’s where supercomputing comes in. Resolving wind power plant performance has been deemed a computational “grand challenge” by the nation’s top energy officials.

National lab scientists and industry stakeholders are using the nation’s fastest supercomputers to design the wind farm of the future under the newly-initiated U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Wind Energy Technologies Office Atmosphere to Electrons (A2e) applied research program.

“Recent advances in supercomputing technology, as well as sophisticated atmospheric measurement capabilities and large sets of data from turbine-based systems, provide the ability to study the wind and wind/turbine interactions as never before,” note the report’s authors.

“The A2e applied research program leverages these advances into an integrated effort so that, for the first time, researchers will be able to accurately model the behavior of wind flow into and through a wind plant at a level of resolution that illustrates the full flow physics. Scientists will apply supercomputing to high fidelity physics models (HFMs) of complex flows and will use “Big Data” along with data science to manage extensive measurements that provide formal validation of supercomputing models.”

The complexity of the entire physical system of wind flow from large regional scales to small-scale intraturbine flows. Illustration by Josh Bauer and Al Hicks, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

A joint public/private partnership between DOE and industry, A2e will develop next-generation wind technologies for the construction of “System Management of Atmospheric Resource through Technology,” or “SMART” power plants.

As described in the report, “A2e will advance wind energy science by quantifying, reducing, and potentially eliminating uncertainty around the wind resource and how it flows through the plants, as well as uncertainty related to the turbine and plant response to that flow. These knowledge gains will be used to inform design standards and processes, enhance industry design capabilities, and demonstrate where innovation has significant potential for cost reduction, performance enhancement, and grid service.”

As part of the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project, NREL is leading the national effort to model the complex and turbulent flow of wind through large wind plants. NREL scientists are working with their colleagues at Sandia National Laboratories, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Texas-Austin, to expand three-dimensional models models for larger and more complex wind farm scenarios. The ultimate goal is to build a predictive simulation capability that runs on an exascale-class machine by 2022.

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