Can a rotor be smart? Passive optimization systems

The spectacular growth of the dimension of the wind turbine has led to the introduction of several interesting technical solutions. Different type of towers (concrete, hybrid, lattice, self-erecting, etc.) and new technical solutions for the foundations appeared in the last decade, trying to have the lowest possible cost of energy.

The rotor of the turbine has followed the same trend. With the impressive size of the blades currently in the market (today we are around 70 meters, the width of a football field) it is not surprising to see a variety of new concepts already in the market or under development.

One of the key issues of very long blades is that it is difficult to optimize them: finding the “sweet spot” for a component exposed to a variety of wind flow characteristics during its operational life is not easy, above all if such characteristics are not uniform along the blade.

The engineers designing the blades are trying to achieve several goals, such as:

  • Increase the energy production (maximizing the aerodynamic efficiency and the power extracted from the wind)
  • Reduce the loads on the structure
  • Create a solution that can easily be transported on public roads and installed with cranes already in the market
  • Extend the life of the blades (we are moving to the 25 or even 30 years mark)

All these objectives should be reached with the lowest possible cost.

The term “smart rotor” refer to a variety of technical solutions whose purpose is to increase the production or reduce the loads.

They belong to two categories, passive systems (not controlled by a software or an operator) and active systems.

Among the passive systems the most interesting are:

Vortex generators. Believe it or not, you can buy the elements generating the vortex from 3M (the same company that invented the Post It all around my desk). You can use them to retrofit pitch-regulated turbines sticking them near the root of the blade, where the air flow is separated by the blade (that is, it is “stalled”).

They basically work reducing the separation of the flow, increasing the production 1 or 2 percentage points (they can be a lot of money).

A second passive technology is the bend-twist coupling.

As you will guess from the name it creates a link between the bend and the twist of the blade, with the object to reduce fatigue loads created by sudden inflow changes during turbulent wind conditions.  

The wind blowing on the blade is creating 2 forces – “lift” (the one pulling up the blade and making the rotor turn) and “drag” (the one bending the blade backwards). As a general rule the engineers try to minimize the drag and maximize the lift, achieving a high “lift to drag” ratio.

With the bend-twist coupling the loads are reduced because the blades “adapt” its shape changing its shape and the angle of attach when deflected.

This coupling can be achieved changing the geometry of the blade (geometric coupling) or by changing the direction of the fibre inside the composite material (resin + fiber) that constitute the blade.

This interesting technology is currently being investigating by several entities, including a heavy weight such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy Systems.

Image Copyright Mark Capellaro, 2012 Sandia Wind Turbine Blades Workshop

I also described some months ago the serrations. They have a different scope (reduce the noise) but I believe they can be consider a type of passive optimization system.

Vortex bladeless wind turbines

I have always seen the wind induced vortexes as a problem – they create vibrations in the tower, that in some cases can start to resonate with the eigenfrequencies (the natural frequencies of the structure) and in the most extreme cases even collapse.

The existence of such vibrations is one of the reasons why it looks like that steel towers for wind turbine have reached their maximum height. At around 100 – 120 meters they start needing dampers and other anti-vortex solutions during installation and for the operational life.

What I was not aware of is that there is a Spanish start-up trying to develop a “bladeless turbine” which exploits this phenomenon to produce electricity.

I have some doubts on the idea of a “bladeless turbine” (I suspect that a wind turbine has, by definition, a rotating part). However the concept developed by the folks at Vortex is for sure very interesting.

The Vortex Tacoma (this is the name of the industrial version under development) is expected to have a height around 3 meters, a weight around 15 Kg and a rated power output of about100w.

Currently smaller scale prototypes are available and the target date for launch of the full scale production is end of 2020.

It looks like a big cylinder oscillating when the wind blow. I also see that they selected the same combination of materials as wind turbines blades (resins reinforced with carbon fiber and/or glass fiber), while for the bottom section anchored to the ground they have selected a carbon fiber reinforced polymer due to its resistance of cyclical loads.

If you wonder how does it generate energy it is with an alternator system with coils and magnets. The cool part is that, unlike wind turbines, you do not have gearboxes, shafts or any other rotating element. The benefit is not only less maintenance but also a noiseless operation.

An additional interesting characteristic of this technology is that many machines can be clustered together in a narrow space. Standard wind turbines have a distance of hundreds of meters from each other to avoid the wake effect (basically the turbulence in the wind caused by the turbine itself). The wake effect can have an impact not only in the energy production of the turbine but also on its lifespan, shortening it due to the demanding operational conditions.

On the other hand the bladeless solution thrive on turbulence so you can pack more Tacoma Vortex together in what would probably look like a forest of artificial trees.

Another very cool feature of this machine is its ability to change its rigidity to adapt it to the characteristics of the wind. Different environmental conditions will request a different setup from the vortex in terms of mass distribution and rigidity. According to the website of the developer the machine will be able to automatically “tune itself” in order to maximize the oscillations.

Wind turbine tower as a water battery: the Gaildorf Wind-Water Project

Did you ever think at the amount of empty, unused space in the bottom of a wind turbine? Any idea how to use it?

Well, the folks at Max Bögl (a German conglomerate active in several sectors) have decided that it could be a good idea to fill it with water (about 40.000 m3 per turbine, up to a height of 40 meters) and use it as a temporary energy storage, in what they call a “water battery”.

Basically, the idea is to use a pumping system to fill the bottom of the tower when energy consumption is low and production is high (for instance, during a windy night).

When needed, the water can be released opening a valve and, thanks to a network of pipes with a diameter of over 1 meter, it can be used to produce energy through three Francis turbine, with a total nominal power of around 16 MW.

The hydro electrical plant is relatively near, at a distance of around 3 Km and with a height difference of 200 meters.

The turbines installed are 4× 3,4 MW GE 137 on an hybrid Max Bögl tower. What is remarkable is the hub height, varying from 155 to a record 178 m. They claim this to be the highest onshore turbine tower currently in operation, and as far as I know with a tip height of 246.5 metres, this could easily be true.

The switching time between energy storage and energy production is not exceptionally fast (30 seconds) but is not outrageously long either.

Partially founded by the German Environmental ministry with over 7 mln. € the pilot project is currently being built in Gaildorf (southern Germany).

Among the benefits of this solution is noteworthy the high efficiency of conversion of the potential energy of the water into electricity using well-known, proven technologies.

The main issue that I see is that this system, to be implemented, need a hydro electrical plant nearby with his own “long term water storage basin”. Essentially the wind turbines are providing only an additional (and somehow limited) storage capacity. However, in order to be cost effective, this technology will also need a “standard” basin.

Why wind turbine blades are made of composite materials?

I’ve received a question regarding material selection for wind turbines blades. The reader asked why there is a predominance in the use of composite materials for the blades instead of wood, steel and aluminium and other materials used in the first glorious, pioneering years of wind energy.

Please note that I’m by no mean an expert so the only intention of this post is to give a very general introduction to the subject. This is a very broad topic involving different engineering branches.

In general the 2 design drivers are weight and stiffness.

A blade should be as light as possible for a variety of reasons:

  • To lower gravity induced fatigue loads
  • To be easily transported and installed
  • To have a better performance

However, it should also be stiff (that is, rigid) for several other reasons:

  • To withstand loads (both wind loads and gravity loads). Wind loads are function of wind speed and length of the blade, and increase from the root to the tip of the blade. Gravity loads are function of the material density.
  • To prevent collision between the blade and the tower under extreme wind
  • To prevent instability (local or global buckling) maintaining its shape

For these reasons blade designers try to minimize the mass for assigned stiffness levels – it is to find a balance between aerodynamic and structural requirements.

So we want less weight (that is lower density) and more stiffness.

Stiffness is expressed by the Young’s modulus of the material – basically the relationship between force and deformation. In general blades are very flexible, stronger in the flapwise direction and weaker in the edgewise direction.

And here is the reason for the use of composite materials. For a given Young Modulus, the material with the lower density is the composite (resin plus glass fiber).

You can see graphically this relationship in a type of graphic called “Ashby Plot” (I attach a version stolen online from a document of the University of Cagliari.

Ashby plot for a wind turbine blade

Multirotor wind turbine: an update

Some time ago I wrote a post about the interesting concept of multirotor wind turbines, including the full scale prototype built by Vestas with 4 refurbished V29-225kW (that is, with a 29 meters rotor diameter).

It has been installed in a test site of the Technical University near Roskilde, in Denmark - I believe I’ve been there many years ago for the famous rock festival.

After running for approximately 3 years the prototype has been dismantled. The result of the test are still not public, but some information leaked.

For instance, an increase in annual energy production (AEP) of approximately 1.5% has been reported. It is due to an improved power curve, allowing the turbine to reach faster the nameplate capacity.

I’m not sure this result can be scaled to the current turbines in the market – however for a modern WTG a 1.5% increase is a lot of money.

Another counter intuitive fact is that the wake effect (the turbulence generated downstream by the WTG when the wind cross the blades) is minor in a multirotor. Don’t ask me why because I’m not an expert in fluid dynamics.

Additionally the load increase is not significant. That is good, because it has a direct impact on life expectancy of the turbine and on tower and foundation cost.

Moreover noise emission is not significantly higher. This point is especially relevant in Europe or other area with strong constraints in term of noise.

Serrations: how to reduce those noisy vortexes

Every now and then a new technical solution appears in the wind energy business and it’s slowly implemented in the new wind turbines.

A good example is the use of trailing edge serrations – not really a new idea (it has been around for several years) but a simple solution that it’s spreading and gaining acceptance in the industry.

Basically they are a method that help reducing the noise of the blade and they look like small triangles. You can see them in the picture at the beginning of the post, which I ironically stolen from an anti-wind energy website.

This solution is particularly beautiful because it can be retro fitted – meaning that it can be applied also to existing, working wind turbines.

They work reducing the turbulent boundary layer on the trailing edge of the blade, which is the source of a relevant amount of the noise. This is a complicate subject and I’m not an expert in acoustic, but in general what happen is that the turbulences and the vortices created by the  layer of air that separate from the edge of the blades are creating the majority of the noise that we hear.

It’s interesting to observe that the length of the triangles has an impact on the reduced frequencies (the longer the serrations, the bigger the reduction at the low frequencies). This help reducing the frequencies that are more annoying for humans.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the amount of dB reduction is function of the serrations flap angle.

Obviously they don’t do miracles, but a reduction of 1 or 2 dB(A) for their price is a good trade off.

It’s also worth to notice that they do not affect substantially the performance (that is, the production) of the wind turbine.

Strength in Numbers: the multi rotor, 12 blades turbine concept

Picture courtesy of wind-turbine-models.com

The idea is not new: for instance around 1800 some “twin” mills have been used to pump water in Denmark and there are quite a few similar concepts and international patents dating the first half of 1900 - see for instance the drawing  below.

What is interesting here is the size of the company testing the idea – Vestas has installed approximately 1 year ago a multi rotor wind turbine, using old refurbished V29 nacelles equipped with new sensors and electronics. Blades tip distance is less than 2 meters.

I’m sure that people who think that wind turbines are ugly will think that this solution is atrocious. For me it’s a quite interesting “out of the box” exercise in a business where rotor diameter has been relentlessly growing in the last decades (V29 is from the ’90… twenty-something years later we have V112 and bigger models).

The benefits are self-evident: greater swept area, saving in tower and foundation, less land use, etc.

The challenges are equally impressive: a whole new set of loads to consider, a system that can easily become unbalanced, increased turbulence and so on. It's early to say if it will ever become commercially viable but it is for sure an interesting experiment.

Characteristics of wind turbine blades

Maintenance of a wind turbine blade

The most elegant element of the wind turbine is, at least for me, the blade.

Blades are currently reaching incredible lengths (onshore we are almost at 70 meters, offshore they can be even bigger) and, as I discussed in this post, can be made of several materials.

The cheap solution is fibreglass, more heavy, while the technological advanced, lighter (and more expensive) solution is carbon fibre. They are submitted to several loads of different origin – not only aerodynamics but also inertial, gravitational and other loads induced for instance by ice.

The main design drivers are aerodynamics, aeroelasticity (the correct damping of the blade) and fatigue behaviour.

But there are other technical requirements, and more technology hidden in the blade:

They must resist lightning. For this reason they often incorporate metallic elements to conduct the electricity to the tower and from there down to the ground. Lightning strikes are a relatively frequent – so frequent that there is a specific norm on the topic (IEC 61400-24). They usually hit the nacelle or the blades. The surprising part is that many lightning striking the turbines are upwards – that is, they go from the turbine to the sky. The metal conductor, usually in copper or steel, can be embedded in the surface of the blade or can be inside it.

They must resist ice. Some models include a mechanism (usually fan heaters or resistors) to warm them and avoid the accumulation of snow and ice, pernicious for stability, production and potentially even dangerous for people working in the area. There are also microwaves solution, that have a low energy consumption, and “defensive” (or preventive) solutions, such as hydrophobic foils. Basically, the ice will not stick to the blade.

They must resist erosion. 20 years of UV, sandstorms can seriously damage the surface of the blade, impacting production. Several solutions have been developed, such as special paints and epoxy or acrylic materials.

They must resist strong winds. During the life of the turbine, the blade can (and it probably will) be exposed to extreme winds.

They must be silent. A relevant percentage of the wind turbine noise is generated by the blade  - usually around the tip. In several countries it’s compulsory to reduce the noise level under a certain dB threshold.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of the blades (at least for me) is the fact that  they are “twisted”.

Conceptually, wind turbines blades works like the wings of a plane.

But on the wings of a plane, the speed is the same from the root to the tip, while on the blade increase from the root (where the blade is moving relatively slowly) to the tip (where speed is maximum).

Therefore, in order to have the correct angle of attack and keep constant the mechanical torque in each section of the blade, the angle of attack decrease from root to tip.

 

Gearbox in wind turbines

Why do you need a gearbox in a wind turbine?

The short answer is that you don’t need one – if you are using a direct drive WTG. But even if the solution without gearbox is used by several manufacturers (e.g. the Goldwind 2.5 PMDD, Enercon models, etc.) the majority of makers decided to include this technology.

Purpose of the gearbox is to increase the rpm (revolutions per minute). The blades rotate very, VERY slowly. It is also important to mention that the longest the blade, the lower is the tip speed of the blade: you do not want to increase it to avoid generating noise and to lower the loads on the blade itself.

In order to reach the correct rotational speed and generate power at the frequency needed by the grid you will need to use a gearbox between the main shaft (connected to the blades) and the secondary, “high speed” shaft linked to the rotor in the generator. The conversion ratio depend on the WTG model, but can be around 1:100.

The gearbox must survive over 20 years with very high, cyclical loads. Torque can be extreme during emergency shutdown, and is usually high during start ups. The failure of a gear box is a very big problem, as you will have a long production downtime and you will need a crane to disassembly the broken component and install the new one.

Additionally, gearboxes should be as silent as possible, have low vibrations and dissipate quickly the heat produced by the internal mechanisms. Therefore lubrication systems and vibration absorber mechanism are crucial in their design.

Gearboxes are usually built using planetary gearing system, and are equipped with several  auxiliary system. For instance, it is possible to analyse the density of particles dissolved in the lubricant oil and the way the gearbox vibrate to detect problems and predict possible failures.

 

Wind sector management – how to put more wind turbines in the same area

Wind sector management - image curtesy of wasp.dk

Wind sector management - image curtesy of wasp.dk

In many project my colleagues from the wind and site department (the people who calculate the best wind turbine model and the optimal layout in a wind farm) are forced to put quite a lot of wind turbines in a reduced space.

Each of these wind turbines generate a “wake effect” – basically, they create turbulence in the wind.

These turbulences can affect other turbines nearby, increasing loads. This is not good, because higher loads usually means more problems due to component failures.

Wind sector management it’s a solution to this problem – basically, when the wind is blowing from a certain direction some turbines are automatically shut down.

There are basically 2 alternatives: you can shut down the turbine upstream (the one creating the turbulence) or the one downstream (the one suffering the increased loads).

Stopping one or more wind turbines will obviously result in a loss of production. However, the guys in wind and site often found that, even considering these losses, the global output of the wind farm is higher in a densely packed wind farm with wind sector management then in a configuration without it.

In the market there are also more advanced solutions that, instead of stopping completely the wind turbines, change only some parameters of the WTGs. For instance the optimization algorithm could decide to change the speed of the rotor or the pitch of the blade.

Wind sector management is one of the curtailment that a wind farm can have. Other typical restrictions are linked to environmental issues (noise, shadow flickering, birds or bats) or to requirements coming from the grid.