How Do Wind Turbines Work in Cold Temperatures?

As wind turbines become more popular renewable energy options, some concerned parties wonder about the potential downsides. For example, research suggests wind turbines change avian migration patterns and cause fatalities as some birds collide with them.

 

Weather is another aspect worthy of discussion, as many people wonder if wind turbines can function in cold weather. The answer is more complex than they might hope. Here are some specifics to consider and examples of relevant research.

 

Ice Can Harm Wind Turbine Performance

One thing to keep in mind is that cold temperatures alone don’t adversely affect wind turbine performance — ice does. As it accumulates on the blades, the turbine becomes less aerodynamic. If the issue remains unaddressed, the turbine can begin having measurement and control-related errors. Power losses and electrical and mechanical failures can also occur.

 

People have wondered precisely how much ice buildup could harm turbine performance. Iowa State University researchers confirmed a substantial drop in wind turbine efficiency due to ice. They found the problem caused up to an 80% decline in power loss.

 

Part of the field research involved using drones to photograph the ice accumulation on 50-meter turbine blades. An analysis of that data showed ice buildup on all areas of the blade. However, it was especially problematic on the outboard blades. Some of those had ice accumulation of nearly a foot near the blade tips.

 

In addition to the power-loss problem, the ice made the turbines spin much more slowly and experience frequent shutdowns. Those side effects occurred despite high-wind conditions. Now that researchers know that ice is a major problem for turbine performance, they want to study effective options for deicing the blades.

 

Mitigating Ice Buildup on Turbine Blades

Understandably, people would rather stop ice from accumulating on turbine blades rather than try to deal with it after the fact. Researchers at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia are up to the task. They engineered a hybrid deicing technology that uses both passive and active methods to tackle the coating.

 

The system has integrated microwave sensors to detect ice and communicate the issue to built-in heaters that automatically start working to melt it. Zahra Azimi Dijvejin — the lead author of a study about this innovation — clarified that the ice sensors set this approach apart from others because they’ll allow the system to only work when necessary.

 

Earlier work involved using similar sensors to check ice buildup on turbine blades and planes. These types offer real-time accumulation insights on the buildup while providing predictions about how fast the ice will melt.

 

The process for testing the sensors on airplanes is rigorous, but using them on wind turbines should be comparatively straightforward. The main reason is that the sensors can be placed at the same altitude as the blades but not attached to them. That’s in contrast to the sensors getting fixed to airplane wings.

 

Swedish Engineers Give Insights on Cold-Weather Turbine Operations

Estimates suggest on-shore wind energy can cover 35% of the world’s power needs. That’s substantial, especially since people are aggressively looking for options that will help countries transition away from fossil fuels for a greener future.

 

However, since wind turbines are becoming widespread but are still much newer than conventional power sources, some individuals still have doubts about whether they will prove as useful as advocates hope.

 

Concerned parties wondered why wind turbines failed in Texas a couple of years ago during severe winter storms, yet they keep operating reliably in locations that get cold weather much more frequently. A closer look at the matter showed one-third of wind turbines failed in the state. That was compared to two-thirds of power plant failures in the same period. Also, the Texas turbines that still had some functionality at the time still produced 12,000 megawatts of power generation capacity.

 

Wind turbines bound for places with frigid temperatures often come with cold-weather packages that include everything from heaters to special ice-resistant turbine blade coatings to keep the equipment operational.

 

During the Texas turbine-failure aftermath, engineers from Swedish power company Skellefteå Kraft weighed in about how they keep turbines working well when temperatures drop and ice becomes a problem. Those professionals know what they’re talking about — their previous research concerned installing turbines in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures can drop to -22 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

One of the engineers explained that the combination of humid air and below-freezing temperatures could create a setting where ice accumulates on turbine blades quickly. Complications also develop when chunks of the ice dislodge, sometimes moving at speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour. That danger means the power company’s maintenance workers must ride in armored vehicles when traveling to check the turbines.

 

Site Analysis Is Important to Prevent Wind Turbine Complications

Knowing about the typical weather conditions in a given area and equipping turbines to cope with them is essential for making them perform consistently well. A webpage managed by the Canadian government explains how icing is a significant problem for wind turbines in the country, particularly between November and April.

 

However, the content clarified how many manufacturers selling wind turbines and related equipment to Canadian customers provide “cold-weather packages” with heaters that keep components like batteries and gearboxes within suitable operating temperatures. That equipment can then work in temperatures plunging to -22 degrees Fahrenheit, like the models tested in the Arctic Circle by the Swedish engineers.

 

This example shows that people cannot assume off-the-shelf turbines will work for their applications — especially if they want to install them in places that experience prolonged periods of below-freezing temperatures.

 

Taking the time to check historical and current weather data for the proposed site will help them avoid complications. Then, if needed, they can also explore technologies and additions that will keep the turbines operational when temperatures drop.

 

Cold Temperatures Are Not an Automatic Barrier to Turbine Deployment

These examples show that cold temperatures and the ice that often comes with them are not reasons to stop considering turbine usage in a given area. Wind turbines can keep working in frigid conditions, but the people purchasing or installing them may need to prioritize specific options with features built for such weather.

 

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