Turbine testing site takes shape in Texas

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Department of Energy has broken ground for a first-of-its-kind wind turbine testing center in Lubbock, Texas.

The Scaled Wind Farm Technology (SWIFT) facility will test wind turbines in real-world conditions to optimize existing generator designs and come up with new ones. Funded in part by a $2.6 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the project will be operated by Sandia National Laboratories and Texas Tech University.

The new test site will analyze how wind turbines interact with one another. When wind farms are built, the wake from one turbine can cause anywhere from 5 to 40 percent energy losses in others, according to Jonathan White, sensing technologies and testing lead in the wind and water power technologies division at Sandia.

These buffeting breezes can also wear out turbines, since they increase air turbulence downwind, which has consequences ranging from premature wear to catastrophic failure.

“An increase in the applied turbulence leads to increases in the wind turbine blade imbalance, wind turbine blade fatigue and drivetrain damage,” White said.

To study these phenomena, researchers will start by constructing three research-scale 300-kilowatt V27 wind generators from Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer. Two of the 180-foot-tall generators will be constructed next to each other, with the third downwind. The site will also include an upwind 200-foot-tall anemometer tower in addition to the existing 650-foot-tall anemometer tower already online. This first phase of turbines is expected to go online later this year, and the site can accommodate up to 10 such generators.

Taylor Eighmy, senior vice president for research at Texas Tech University, explained that SWIFT is needed because traditional wind tunnel models oversimplify real-world conditions, like air patterns, terrain and temperature. “To really be able to square up the ability to model wind farm performance, you have put wind turbines in the ground,” he said.

Still, SWIFT’s generators are smaller than their grid-scale brethren, making them “big enough to scale properly and small enough to change out and instrument,” according to Eighmy. This reduces expenses to less than 5 percent of testing costs on full-scale turbines and lets scientists replicate numerous turbine designs while conducting higher-risk experiments.

The turbines’ small size is also expected to speed up the development process, allowing researchers to conduct power performance tests in as little as one month. “We expect to operate as many as four experiments per year per turbine. We are working to develop basic research up to commercialization in periods of 24 months or less,” said White. “Aggressive technology development is key to driving down the cost of wind energy.” SWIFT will also test turbine noise, embedded sensors and adaptive rotor systems.

The results can then be applied to current wind farms, helping operators anticipate power production from individual turbines and tweaking the generators to produce more electricity while lowering grid integration costs. SWIFT will also help developers plan turbine placement, whether on land or at sea, to better harvest energy from the wind.