Here’s a question: what’s better than generating electricity that is cheap, renewable, and clean using wind turbines? Think about that for a moment. The answer: generating electricity that is cheap, renewable, and clean using wind turbines equipped with lasers.

Laser equipped turbines may sound like a far-fetched sci-fi concept that Dr. Evil would concoct, but the technology is real. It is receiving financial support from the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation and is becoming known as “wind LIDAR,” an acronym for LIght Detection And Ranging. Similar to how radar technology uses radio waves, lidar uses laser pulses to measure atmospheric qualities such as wind direction and velocity.

In a joint venture between two Danish companies, Risø DTU, a sustainable energy research organization, and NKT Photonics, an optical sensor specialist, researchers are developing a laser-based wind sensing system that will be integrated into a wind turbine’s blades and nacelle. The system will predict wind direction, turbulence and shear and will use that information to help turbines make adjustments to it’s blades. In real time, the turbines will be able to “see” the changing qualities of the wind and match them, thereby increasing turbine efficiency.

The old aside the new: An old windmill sits next to a modern turbine.

The wind industry has made leaps and bounds in terms of technical advances over the years. These advances have increased the electrical generating capacity of wind turbines, making the modern windmill into a sleek, efficient, and safe structure. Before, buzzwords like “nameplate capacity” and “hub height” helped to qualify technical progress. Now, terms like “laser providence” and “smart blades” are entering into wind linguistics. Aside from sounding really cool, the effect of these new characteristics will allow turbines to operate better and last longer by approximately 5%. In terms of longevity, average turbine lifespan would increase by a year. Fiscally speaking, a 4 MW class wind turbine would gain roughly $38,000 in increased annual productivity.

The Danish research program will conclude in 2012 and the first lidar-incorporated smart blades could be available by 2014. What other renewable has lasers in its future?

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