Why wind turbines in New York keep working in bitter cold weather unlike the ones in Texas

Why wind turbines in New York keep working in bitter cold weather unlike the ones in Texas

By Rick Moriarty | rmoriarty@syracuse.com 2/19/21  syracuse.com

 

Syracuse, N.Y. — Texas Republicans were quick to blame the state’s wind turbines for the massive power outages that millions of Texans experienced this week during an unusual blast of cold weather.

Texas leads the nation in wind power, with nearly 15,000 wind turbines producing 23% of the Lone Star State’s electricity last year. Many of the turbines shut down when the cold descended on Texas.

It turns out that only a third of the power outages in the state resulted from wind turbines failing in the cold. Power plants that use fossil fuels — coal and natural gas ― accounted for two-thirds of the power outages.

But we couldn’t help but wonder why wind turbines in cold-weather states like New York can operate in the winter with seemingly little trouble when their counterparts in Texas can’t.

The huge Maple Ridge Wind Farm, in fact, operates year-round in the Tug Hill north of Syracuse, an area famous for its bitter cold winters that often pile up 200 inches or more of snow.

So we went to the experts — EDP Renewables, which operates Maple Ridge and other wind farms.

EDPR is the largest owner and operator of wind power in New York and the fourth-largest in the United States. Locally, in addition to Maple Ridge, it operates the Madison Wind Farm in Madison County. EDPR’s New York wind farms produce enough clean electricity to power more than 298,000 New York homes.

Amy Kurt, senior manager of regional government affairs for EDP, said EDP and other wind power operators in this neck of the woods equip their turbines to handle the cold and, even more importantly, the ice that often comes with the cold.

“There are a variety of cold weather and anti-icing technologies that are used on wind turbines in the coldest regions,” she said. “These technologies help prevent the buildup of ice on turbine blades, detect ice when it cannot be prevented, and remove ice safely when it is detected.”

Ice clinging to the blades of a wind turbine poses big problems. It adds weight and can throw the spinning blades out of balance, potentially damaging vital gear mechanisms. It also can change the aerodynamics of the blades, preventing the wind from making them spin.

Kurt said EDP’s turbines are equipped with sensors that detect ice by sensing the imbalance the ice causes.

“When there’s an imbalance, we know something is not right,” she said.

The sensors can even tell which blades have ice on them and which ones don’t. When ice is detected, heating elements inside the blades turn on to melt the ice. 

For safety reasons, the turbines are shut down while the heating elements melt off the ice, Kurt said. That way, there’s no chance of ice flying off spinning blades, potentially damaging the turbines or, worse, striking someone on the ground, she said.

“We’d rather the ice drop below the turbine,” she said.

Once the ice is removed, the turbines are turned back on and the blades can safely spin in the wind again.

In Texas, wind turbines are not equipped with such de-icing packages because operators there never expected to need them, Kurt said.

“Turbines in Texas are built for the type of temperatures they usually get in Texas, where it’s 110 degrees, not 10 degrees,” she said. “It’s a cost thing.”

 

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And "that cost thing" is exacerbated by Texas's deregulated retail electric provider system.

It’s all about cost.  Do the rate-payers of TX want to pay more every month for their electricity, or do they want to take a chance.  In this case, perhaps it wasn’t an “informed” decision, but, generally, through their electoral process, the citizens of TX made a choice.    It is extremely unfortunate that lives have been lost from that, perhaps, poorly informed choice.

Government regulations come at a cost.  and the lack of government regulations also come at a cost.

The problem was that the wind went away during the storm.  If you look at the Sweetwater, Tx airport wind speed data from NOAA you will see that the winds went calm at 10:35 on the 9th and did not blow again until 10:55 on the 19th.  10 days of no wind.  Even if there were heaters on the blades, they would be a net draw on the grid.  This would have exasperated the crisis.  

FYI, Sweetwater is the epicenter for the West Texas wind farms.  It’s where yo turn off I-20 to go north to Lubbock.

Thanks, Chad.  My windless days here were a good bit less but then again I'm not in the panhandle. If wind speeds are commonly slowed below the minimum required during extreme cold events, it wouldn't be cost effective to harden wind turbines.

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