A new way to cut costs of wind energy

Like we did back in March, we’re hitting the road again this week to visit the people who live and work with wind power. And this time, we’re hitting the eastern U.S. We’ll be visiting wind projects across New York and factories that build wind turbine parts in Ohio, learning about jobs and community-bolstering benefits along the way.

Our first stop, however, wasn’t necessarily the sort of thing that comes to mind when thinking about wind energy: Buffalo-based Sentient Science.

We often talk about physical innovations that helped cut wind’s costs by two-thirds in six years. Technological advances allow new wind turbines to reach stronger, steadier winds, meaning they can generate more electricity more of the time. The work done by Sentient Science and others represents the next frontier in cost cutting– using software and data to optimize wind turbine performance.

Sentient Science started in the aerospace and defense realms. They developed material science computer modeling to predict how machinery used by NASA and the Department of Defense will perform far into the future. Earlier projects included work on the Hubble Telescope, F35 fighter jet and Blackhawk Helicopter.

After moving from government research to commercialization, Sentient Science decided to focus on wind power. By using its software to model the machinery inside a turbine’s nacelle, Sentient can help turbine operators predict when certain parts need service or repair five, 10 or 15 years into the future. They also recommend actions to be taken years before a part fails, so that failure never actually occurs. Through Sentient Science’s modeling, turbine operators can avoid costly repairs, and turbine life can be extended significantly, dropping wind’s costs lower still.

And their wind business is booming. Sentient Science predicts they’ll double their highly educated staff (20 percent of which hold Phd’s) from 60 people to 120 within the next year.

Sentient’s work is truly groundbreaking. In 2014, it received the Tibbets Award at the White House, the country’s highest technology honor.

Sentient Science is a microcosm of the ways American ingenuity is continuing the never-ending push to make wind power better and more affordable. A wind turbine may seem like a simple piece of equipment at first glance, but the same technology floating in space with Hubble Telescope is ensuring that turbine works as well as its physical limits will allow.