It’s currently winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and if you’ve seen the news in the last couple of weeks, you’ll know that many countries have been plunged into freezing temperatures. As if convincing your dog to pee outside and avoiding slipping on ice wasn’t enough, some have claimed that the chilly weather can endanger our electricity supply – namely, in the form of wind turbine failure. But as long as they’re weatherproofed, that isn’t the case.
People started kicking off loudly about wind power and winter back in 2021 when Texas experienced historically low temperatures, and with them, a massive power failure. Blame was quickly placed on iced-over wind turbines – and it turned into quite the political debate about the use of renewable energy – but the problem wasn’t with wind power itself. The turbines simply weren’t prepared for such low temperatures.
“The primary issue with the wind turbines in Texas is that such extreme cold weather was not expected based on the historical record of weather, and therefore the developers did not weatherize the wind turbines,” Michael Howland, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, told MIT’s Climate Portal. “Wind turbines operate in much colder locations than Texas, and dealing with icing is very straightforward and common through weatherization.”
According to international design standards, wind turbines should be able to operate down to temperatures as low as -20°C (-4°F). However, wind farms operate successfully in places where it can get much chillier than that, like the North Sea, Finland, and Sweden, the latter of which recently experienced a less-than-balmy -41.6°C (-42.8°F).
In countries such as these, wind turbines are designed with what’s known as “cold-weather packages”. These can include heaters for lubricants and the turbine’s bearings, and several different systems covering ice detection, de-icing, anti-icing, and hardened sensors.
Swedish power company Skellefteå Kraft has created one such package that’s designed to stop ice from even getting a chance to mingle with the blades. “It involves covering the wind turbine’s blades with a thin layer of carbon fibre which is heated when necessary to prevent ice from forming,” the company website explains. “Ice sensors then detect when there is a risk of ice formation and start the de-icing system before ice can be formed.”
Thanks to these features, turbines can keep on spinning in temperatures that would certainly put the rest of us off work. The events in Texas suggest that, with the recent uptick in super cold winters, specialized weather packages might end up being a more widespread necessity.
“Since extreme weather is increasingly affected by climate change, we may need to revisit which locations require wind turbine weatherization,” said Howland.
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