How Wind Power Works

Science | Green Science

Calculating Power

To calculate the amount of power a turbine can actually generate from the wind, you need to know the wind speed at the turbine site and the turbine power rating. Most large turbines produce their maximum power at wind speeds around 15 meters per second (33 mph). Considering steady wind speeds, it's the diameter of the rotor that determines how much energy a turbine can generate. Keep in mind that as a rotor diameter increases, the height of the tower increases as well, which means more access to faster winds.

 Rotor Size and Maximum Power Output Rotor Diameter (meters) Power Output (kW) 10 25 17 100 27 225 33 300 40 500 44 600 48 750 54 1000 64 1500 72 2000 80 2500 Sources: Danish Wind Industry Association, American Wind Energy Association

At 33 mph, most large turbines generate their rated power capacity, and at 45 mph (20 meters per second), most large turbines shut down. There are a number of safety systems that can turn off a turbine if wind speeds threaten the structure, including a remarkably simple vibration sensor used in some turbines that basically consists of a metal ball attached to a chain, poised on a tiny pedestal. If the turbine starts vibrating above a certain threshold, the ball falls off the pedestal, pulling on the chain and triggering a shut down.

Probably the most commonly activated safety system in a turbine is the "braking" system, which is triggered by above-threshold wind speeds. These setups use a power-control system that essentially hits the brakes when wind speeds get too high and then "release the brakes" when the wind is back below 45 mph. Modern large-turbine designs use several different types of braking systems:

• Pitch control - The turbine's electronic controller monitors the turbine's power output. At wind speeds over 45 mph, the power output will be too high, at which point the controller tells the blades to alter their pitch so that they become unaligned with the wind. This slows the blades' rotation. Pitch-controlled systems require the blades' mounting angle (on the rotor) to be adjustable.
• Passive stall control - The blades are mounted to the rotor at a fixed angle but are designed so that the twists in the blades themselves will apply the brakes once the wind becomes too fast. The blades are angled so that winds above a certain speed will cause turbulence on the upwind side of the blade, inducing stall. Simply stated, aerodynamic stall occurs when the blade's angle facing the oncoming wind becomes so steep that it starts to eliminate the force of lift, decreasing the speed of the blades.
• Active stall control - The blades in this type of power-control system are pitchable, like the blades in a pitch-controlled system. An active stall system reads the power output the way a pitch-controlled system does, but instead of pitching the blades out of alignment with the wind, it pitches them to produce stall.

(See Petester's Basic Aerodynamics for a nice explanation of both lift and still.)

Globally, at least 50,000 wind turbines are producing a total of 50 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually. In the next section, we'll examine the availability of wind resources and how much electricity wind turbines can actually produce.