Transforming the efficiency of wind turbines

Led by the University of Sheffield, a major collaboration between universities and energy companies aims to reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels by making offshore wind energy production more efficient, more reliable and cheaper to produce.

offshore wind turbine

The UK relies on energy to heat its buildings and generate electricity to power homes and businesses. But according to a House of Commons Committee report published in 2023, 78 per cent of this energy still comes from fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.

Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the Earth’s temperature to be warmer than it otherwise would be with catastrophic consequences. 

In a race to tackle climate change the UK government is aiming to reach net-zero, a state in which greenhouse gases released are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere, by 2050. While renewable energy is already part of the electricity mix, the government is setting energy providers with a target for all electricity to come from 100 per cent zero-carbon generation by 2035.

Offshore wind power energy is crucial to helping the UK achieve its CO₂ emissions targets and currently accounts for 24 per cent of total electricity energy. But offshore wind farms are expensive to build and can be difficult to maintain.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering are leading a major collaboration between universities and energy companies to make vital improvements to offshore wind turbines. Bringing research and industry together, the EPSRC Prosperity Partnership investigates the generators, blades, cables and foundations of wind turbines.

As a result of all advancements and innovations, including those from this project, we estimate that the cost of energy from offshore wind farms is now one quarter of what it was in 2009.

Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu

Professor (Personal Chair) of the Electrical Machines and Drives Research Group in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering

A powerful collaboration

Research to bring down the cost of offshore wind; a simple explanation

The EPSRC Prosperity Partnership, titled ‘A new partnership in Offshore Wind’ was a five year long, £7.64m project led by Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu from the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield

The project’s multidisciplinary team involved experts from across electrical and mechanical engineering fields at the Universities of Sheffield, Durham and Hull, as well as at Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, Ørsted, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The partnership worked towards developing the next generation of intelligent offshore wind technology. By improving the durability and efficiency of machinery and the design and manufacturing process, the project had a goal to ultimately make offshore wind energy cheaper. The knowledge of industry leaders was combined with world-leading academic researchers to reduce the cost of electricity and support UK supply chain growth.

The project looked at four key work packages: the development of new modular generators and converters, monitoring the health of wind turbine blades, improving fault detection techniques and improving the performance and reliability of wind turbine components. 

The research was organised to combine the specific knowledge areas of experts involved with the development needs of industrial partners. For example, the University of Sheffield led the work on the development of novel modular generators and converters and structural health monitoring of wind turbine blades. The University of Durham contributed research on novel condition monitoring and fault detection techniques and technologies while University of Hull researchers investigated novel blade technology and array cables.

“In modern direct-drive generators, there is no gearbox. This eliminates 50 per cent of the components of a wind turbine and has a direct positive impact on the reliability of the system. We have developed ways to make the generator even more efficient, including development of new generator and converter topologies with improvements to the choice and use of better materials for many of the components, as well as novel monitoring techniques and technologies for generators, blades, cables and foundations of wind turbines. This helps reduce the cost of manufacturing the generator system by 20 per cent”, explains Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu.

Collaborative impact

Since 2009, the Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy Research Centre at the University of Sheffield has been developing the most reliable, innovative and efficient wind turbine generators.

Siemens Gamesa and the University were lead partners in the EPSRC Prosperity Partnership project with a focus on investigating the generators, blades, cables and foundations of wind turbines.

The collaborative research and innovation work has led to new knowledge and skills relevant to the industry and academia, new and sustained collaborations and opportunities identified for future economic benefits to the lead industry partner. In total, the project resulted in over 170 research publications including journal articles, conference papers and books, filed 20 patents and led to further research in this field being funded to the value of over £18m. 

Crucially, the partnership upskilled Siemens Gamesa engineers by improving their understanding of structural health monitoring of wind turbine generators and blades. This resulted in the company feeling confident in trialling new approaches to offshore technologies.

Dr Arwyn Thomas, Industrial Principal Investigator from Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (SGRE), one of the world’s leading providers of wind power products and solutions, said: “This collaboration allows SGRE to steer the University to apply its excellent track record for innovation towards real life issues facing the industry. It helps to focus the research into areas that are far more relevant and which will have much more immediate, positive impacts. This, in turn, ensures that our graduate and post-graduate researchers develop the right skills to enter industry and help meet the current skills shortage.”

Siemens Gamesa has since invested a further £1m to develop high-power density direct-drive permanent magnet generators in collaboration with the University of Sheffield. This has funded further research into the development of several new generator design concepts which will lead to improved power output and reliability to further reduce to levelised cost of energy.

There are a number of patents that are currently being filed as well as the evaluation of turbine designs with hopes of being put into mass production and installed in service. This work has been made possible due to the collaboration and trust developed through the Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy Research Centre.

Working towards a positive future

The collaborative research was carried out by a team of researchers, PhD students and technical staff from all the participating partners. Together with the academic and industrial supervisors and engineers, the project had people from 20 different nations making critical contributions.

The project has been shortlisted for the World Sustainability Awards 2023 hosted by Sustainability Leaders, a global network for senior corporate executives which aims to accelerate sustainability initiatives.

This particular category for External Partnerships celebrates a collaboration between at least two organisations which is having a positive impact on environmental, social and governance conditions, and recognises the need for businesses to partner with external stakeholders in order to create lasting change.

“The project has been a fantastic collaboration with our partners. We are honoured to be shortlisted within the External Partnership category, which includes excellent and high-profile organisations, and we are looking forward to the announcement of the results at the ceremony in Amsterdam in October.” - Keith Dean, Project Manager for ‘A New Partnership in Offshore Wind’, at the University of Sheffield.

Research from the project has already led to substantial amounts of additional funding (in excess of £18M) being awarded to develop the team’s ideas and innovations from the project even further. 

For example, the importance of further investigations in this field will be followed by the award of an EPSRC-funded research grant, ROSEHIPS, worth £6.3M. Led by the University of Sheffield, this project brings together industry experts and academic expertise in machine learning, advanced data analysis and new sensor systems. 

All of the follow on projects aim to extend the knowledge from the Prosperity Partnership collaboration and drive the UK towards safer and greener energy generation. However, the team notes that it is crucial for funding into offshore wind power to continue to quicker adopt research and development and production strategies into the offshore wind industry.

Meet the team

Professor Zi-Qiang Zhu
Keith Dean
Professor David Stone
Professor Martin Foster
Dr Milijana Odavic
Professor Guang-Jin Li
Professor Antonio Griffo
Professor Nikolaos Dervilis
Professor Keith Worden
Professor Elizabeth Cross
Professor David Wagg
Dr Robert Barthorpe

Written by Alina Moore, Research Communications Coordinator

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