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When wind turbines harness breeze, they let out an uneven wake on the other side. This wake makes it hard for the turbines that stand behind them to perform at the top of their game. “It’s like going from swimming up a smooth river to a choppy bay,” says Charu Mehendale, who is in charge of developing this new technology for GE Power & Water’s renewable energy business. “It’s fluid dynamics. Optimizing for this can help you reduce energy losses.”

This is an article that appears on the GE Reports web site . The daily, award-winning online magazine published by GE.

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But challenges like these are like brain candy for engineers. Mehendale and his team looked at data they collected from wind farms and saw that when the upstream turbines let some of the wind energy pass by pitching and yawing the blades, the wake was less turbulent. “It was a paradigm shift,” Mehendale says. “Right now, individual turbines are set up to get what they can from the wind. But when we make them less selfish and pass some of the good wind on, the whole wind turbine power plant works better.”

Acting on their findings, Mehendale’s team developed a big data system that gathers data from turbines and sends it to a central controller. The controller’s software analyzes information from each turbine, including wind speed and direction, weather and power output, and sends back instructions to optimize the farm’s performance as a unit.

GE wind turbines in the horizon at the Fântânele-Cogealac Wind Farm in Romania, the largest wind farm in Europe. Shot by Chris New. 

GE wind turbines at Fântânele-Cogealac in Romania, the largest wind energy facility in Europe. Top image: A wind engineer stands on top of a 2.5-megawatt GE wind turbine at the Fântânele-Cogealac Images by Chris New.

Mehendale estimates that the technology could improve the efficiency of a wind farm by up to 2 percent, and boost its profits by up to 8 percent a year.

There are other benefits. “By taking off some of the load that front-line turbines normally experience when operating all-out, they don’t deal with such strong forces, which we expect could help lower the cost of maintenance,” says Ellen Liu, the new platform’s manager. “Less turbulent wake from these turbines could potentially mean lower maintenance for other machines on the farm.”

The wind wake technology is a tool in GE’s big data arsenal to build a “brilliant” wind turbine. The company’s Wind PowerUp platform is already helping operators like E.ON and EDP Renewables earn up to 5 percent additional energy production on their existing fleets (see video).