Tech Insights

Wind Expansion Depends on 5 Critical Issues for Engineers

April 17, 2024 by Karen Hanson

A recent report outlines five “grand challenges” in expanding global wind energy generation.

Wind engineers and experts in other fields must work together, share information, and consider the big picture in developing cost-effective wind energy and meeting decarbonization goals, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA’s “Grand Challenges Revisited” report identified five challenges to resolve as wind energy expands: atmospheric science, wind turbines, plant and grid design, environmental issues, and social concerns. The report built upon the three grand challenges it defined in 2109 and the IEA’s Technology Collaboration Programme’s Topical Experts (TEM) meeting.

The report urged international and interdisciplinary collaboration to advance the science and practicalities of wind energy infrastructure. 


Offshore wind installation.

Offshore wind installation. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Thinking Beyond Conventional Wind

Worldwide, renewable energy increased by about 50% in 2023, adding nearly 510 GW to the energy mix. Solar power made up about 75% of new energy generation last year. Together, solar and wind now account for about 95% of renewable energy. Yet, according to the IEA's report, wind needs to play a bigger role in achieving net-zero carbon emissions, and scientists and other stakeholders need more research, knowledge, and creative thinking.


Renewable electricity growth by type.

Renewable electricity growth by type. Image used courtesy of IEA


The IEA recommended wind installations should be considered in locations previously viewed as difficult or unsuitable. This could include placing turbines in areas with low wind or building offshore wind farms in deep water. 

Before this can happen, developers need a stronger understanding of wind science. They must also think about the economic, environmental, and social consequences of building out wind farms and learn how the factors intersect and influence one another. 


The Five Challenges of Wind Development

At the TEM, experts categorized the five challenges surrounding wind development and pinpointed the main issues needing attention. The first three challenges focus on the science and technology of wind, while the last two involve the consequences of building wind installations.

In atmospheric science, experts identified goals to increase observations and develop more accurate prediction models. Turbine engineers focused on issues like holistic design, industrialization, and incorporating “smart” controls for operation and maintenance. Critical issues for power plants and grids included improvements in modeling, plant design, and next-generation grid support.

In the past, wind developers typically did not consider environmental and social issues until after plans were finalized. However, the report advises bringing environmentalists and social scientists in during the conception phases. The main environmental concerns were avoiding or minimizing impacts, weighing costs and benefits, and considering present and future concerns. Critical issues in social science included social adaptation, benefits, burdens, and just processes.


The five grand challenges outlined in the IEA’s report.

The five grand challenges outlined in the IEA’s report. Image used courtesy of NREL


While the IEA report detailed the five challenges separately, it emphasized the importance of examining how the challenges intersect. Those working in one discipline often don’t have expertise or knowledge in other areas. Additionally, individual disciplines sometimes don’t use the same terminology or have access to the same data. These findings were apparent when TEM attendees broke into smaller, cross-discipline discussion groups.

To overcome these limitations, the IEA recommended creating more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, which could also identify gaps in knowledge and subjects needing additional research. 


Common Issues in Wind Development

In discussions among experts from different fields, the IEA noticed three common issues emerging:

  • Communication. Communication difficulties arose from varying understandings of terminology, definitions, and concepts. The IEA recommended cross-education to bridge the gaps.
  • Data collection. Experts in all challenge areas collect and manage extensive data sets, but these are rarely shared with those in other fields. The report noted that many issues could be addressed if others had digital access to the data while respecting intellectual property rights.
  • Cross-disciplinary research. Issues in expanding wind energy often overlap among disciplines. The report recommends creating opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion and research.


Future Steps for Wind Expansion

The IEA plans to create a five-year roadmap for wind expansion structured on the five grand challenges and the critical issues identified in cross-disciplinary discussions. The IEA recommended more opportunities for collaboration, especially in the early stages of development, and more involvement from wind experts in Asia and Africa.