Modern Wind-power Technology

When you talk about modern wind turbines, you're looking at two primary designs: horizontal-axis and vertical-axis. Vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs) are pretty rare. The only one currently in commercial production is the Darrieus turbine, which looks kind of like an egg beater.

Vertical-axis wind turbines
Photo courtesy NREL (left) and Solwind Ltd
Vertical-axis wind turbines (left: Darrieus turbine)

In a VAWT, the shaft is mounted on a vertical axis, perpendicular to the ground. VAWTs are always aligned with the wind, unlike their horizontal-axis counterparts, so there's no adjustment necessary when the wind direction changes; but a VAWT can't start moving all by itself -- it needs a boost from its electrical system to get started. Instead of a tower, it typically uses guy wires for support, so the rotor elevation is lower. Lower elevation means slower wind due to ground interference, so VAWTs are generally less efficient than HAWTs. On the upside, all equipment is at ground level for easy installation and servicing; but that means a larger footprint for the turbine, which is a big negative in farming areas.

illustration of a Darrieus-design VAWT
Darrieus-design VAWT

VAWTs may be used for small-scale turbines and for pumping water in rural areas, but all commercially produced, utility-scale wind turbines are horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWTs).

a wind farm in California
Photo courtesy GNU; Photographer: Kit Conn
Wind farm in California

As implied by the name, the HAWT shaft is mounted horizontally, parallel to the ground. HAWTs need to constantly align themselves with the wind using a yaw-adjustment mechanism. The yaw system typically consists of electric motors and gearboxes that move the entire rotor left or right in small increments. The turbine's electronic controller reads the position of a wind vane device (either mechanical or electronic) and adjusts the position of the rotor to capture the most wind energy available. HAWTs use a tower to lift the turbine components to an optimum elevation for wind speed (and so the blades can clear the ground) and take up very little ground space since almost all of the components are up to 260 feet (80 meters) in the air.



Large HAWT components:

  • rotor blades - capture wind's energy and convert it to rotational energy of shaft
  • shaft - transfers rotational energy into generator
  • nacelle - casing that holds the gearbox (increases speed of shaft between rotor hub and generator), generator {uses rotational energy of shaft to generate electricity using electromagnetism), electronic control unit (monitors system, shuts down turbine in case of malfunction and controls yaw mechanism), yaw controller (moves rotor to align with direction of wind) and brakes (stop rotation of shaft in case of power overload or system failure).
  • tower - supports rotor and nacelle and lifts entire setup to higher elevation where blades can safely clear the ground
  • electrical equipment - carries electricity from generator down through tower and controls many safety elements of turbine

From start to finish, the process of generating electricity from wind -- and delivering that electricity to people who need it -- looks something like this: