Building a More Efficient Wind Farm

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A wind turbine is a device that converts kinetic energy from the wind into mechanical energy. If the mechanical energy is used to produce electricity, the device may be called a wind generator or wind charger. If the mechanical energy is used to drive machinery, such as for grinding grain or pumping water, the device is called a windmill or wind pump. Large wind farms are being built around the world as a cleaner way to generate electricity, but operators are still searching for the most efficient way to arrange the massive turbines that turn moving air into power. To help steer wind farm owners in the right direction, Charles Meneveau, a Johns Hopkins fluid mechanics and turbulence expert, working with a colleague in Belgium, has devised a new formula through which the optimal spacing for a large array of turbines can be obtained.

Turbines used in wind farms for commercial production of electric power are usually three-bladed and pointed into the wind by computer-controlled motors. These have high tip speeds of over 200 mph, high efficiency, and low torque ripple, which contribute to good reliability. The tubular steel towers range from 200 to 300 feet tall. The blades rotate at 10-22 revolutions per minute. At 22 rotations per minute the tip speed exceeds 300 feet per second. A gear box is commonly used for stepping up the speed of the generator, although designs may also use direct drive of an annular generator.

“I believe our results are quite robust,” said Meneveau, who is the Louis Sardella Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering. “They indicate that large wind farm operators are going to have to space their turbines farther apart.”

The newest wind farms, which can be located on land or offshore, typically use turbines with rotor diameters of about 300 feet. Currently, turbines on these large wind farms are spaced about seven rotor diameters apart. The new spacing model suggests that placing the wind turbines 15 rotor diameters apart – more than twice as far apart as in the current layouts – results in more cost-efficient power generation.

The research is important because large wind farms — consisting of hundreds or even thousands of turbines — are planned or already operating in the western United States, Europe and China. “The early experience is that they are producing less power than expected,” Meneveau said. “Some of these projects are underperforming.”

Earlier computational models for large wind farm layouts were based on simply adding up what happens in the wakes of single wind turbines, Meneveau said. The new spacing model, he said, takes into account interaction of arrays of turbines with the entire atmospheric wind flow.

Meneveau and Meyers argue that the energy generated in a large wind farm has less to do with horizontal winds and is more dependent on the strong winds that the turbulence created by the tall turbines pulls down from higher up in the atmosphere. Using insights gleaned from high-performance computer simulations as well as from wind tunnel experiments, they determined that in the correct spacing, the turbines alter the landscape in a way that creates turbulence, which stirs the air and helps draw more powerful kinetic energy from higher altitudes.

A wind tunnel is a research tool used in aerodynamic research. It is used to study the effects of air moving past solid objects. Wind tunnels were first proposed as a means of studying vehicles (primarily airplanes) in free flight. The wind tunnel was envisioned as a means of reversing the usual paradigm: instead of the air’s standing still and the aircraft moving at speed through it, the same effect would be obtained if the aircraft stood still and the air moved at speed past it.

Air currents in the tunnel pass through a series of small three-bladed model wind turbines mounted atop posts, mimicking an array of full-size wind turbines. Data concerning the interaction of the air currents and the model turbines is collected by using a measurement procedure called stereo particle-image-velocimetry, which requires a pair of high-resolution digital cameras, smoke and laser pulses.

Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

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