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Wind Power

A wind energy system transforms the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical energy that can be harnessed for practical use.

There are two basic designs of wind electric turbines: vertical-axis, or "egg-beater" style, and horizontal-axis (propeller-style) machines. Horizontal-axis wind turbines are most common today, constituting nearly all of the "utility-scale" (100 kilowatts, kW, capacity and larger) turbines in the global market.

Turbine subsystems include:

  • A rotor, or blades, which convert the wind's energy into rotational shaft energy;
  • A nacelle (enclosure) containing a drive train, usually including a gearbox* and a generator;
  • a tower, to support the rotor and drive train; and electronic equipment such as controls, electrical cables, ground support equipment, and interconnection equipment.

Some turbines do not require a gearbox

Wind turbines vary in size. This chart depicts a variety of historical turbine sizes and the amount of electricity they are each capable of generating (the turbine's capacity, or power rating).

The ability to generate electricity is measured in watts. Watts are very small units, so the terms kilowatt (kW, 1,000 watts), megawatt (MW, 1 million watts), and gigawatt (pronounced "jig-a-watt,” GW, 1 billion watts) are most commonly used to describe the capacity of generating units like wind turbines or other power plants.

Electricity production and consumption are most commonly measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). A kilowatt-hour means one kilowatt (1,000 watts) of electricity produced or consumed for one hour.

One 50-watt light bulb left on for 20 hours consumes one kilowatt-hour of electricity (50 watts’ x 20 hours = 1,000 watt-hours = 1 kilowatt-hour). The output of a wind turbine depends on the turbine's size and the wind's speed through the rotor. Wind turbines being manufactured now have power ratings ranging from 250 watts to 5 megawatts (MW).

Example: A 10-kW wind turbine can generate about 10,000 kWh annually at a site with wind speeds averaging 12 miles per hour, or about enough to power a typical household. A 5-MW turbine can produce more than 15 million kWh in a year-- enough to power more than 1, 400 households

Wind Power Turbine

Wind speed is a crucial element in projecting turbine performance, and a site's wind speed is measured through wind resource assessment prior to a wind system's construction. Generally, an annual average wind speed greater than four meters per second (m/s) (9 mph) is required for small wind electric turbines (less wind is required for water-pumping operations). Utility-scale wind power plants require minimum average wind speeds of 4 m/s (13 mph).

The power available in the wind is proportional to the cube of its speed, which means that doubling the wind speed increases the available power by a factor of eight. Thus, a turbine operating at a site with an average wind speed of 12 mph could in theory generate about 33% more electricity than one at an 11-mph site, because the cube of 12 (1,768) is 33% larger than the cube of 11 (1,331). (In the real world, the turbine will not produce quite that much more electricity, but it will still generate much more than the 9% difference in wind speed.)

The important thing to understand is that what seems like a small difference in wind speed can mean a large difference in available energy and in electricity produced, and therefore, a large difference in the cost of the electricity generated. Also, there is little energy to be harvested at very low wind speeds (6-mph winds contain less than one-eighth the energy of 12-mph winds).

“Capacity factor": Capacity factor is one element in measuring the productivity of a wind turbine or any other power production facility. It compares the plant's actual production over a given period of time with the amount of power the plant would have produced if it had run at full capacity for the same amount of time.

Capacity Factor = Power that would have been produced if turbine operated at maximum output 100% of the time A conventional utility power plant uses fuel, so it will normally run much of the time unless it is idled by equipment problems or for some maintenance A capacity factor of 40% to 80% is typical for conventional plants.

Power Production

A wind plant is "fueled" by the wind, which blows steadily at times and not at all at other times. Although modern utility-scale wind turbines typically operate 65% to 90% of the time, they often run at less than full capacity. Therefore, a capacity factor of 25% to 40% is common, although they may achieve higher capacity factors during windy weeks or months.

It is important to note that while capacity factor is almost entirely a matter of reliability for a fueled power plant, it is not for a wind plant—for a wind plant, it is a matter of economical turbine design. With a very large rotor and a very small generator, a wind turbine would run at full capacity whenever the wind blew and would have a 60-80% capacity factor—but it would produce very little electricity.

The most electricity per dollar of investment is gained by using a larger generator and accepting the fact that the capacity factor will be lower as a result. Wind turbines are fundamentally different from fueled power plants A wind turbine at a typical location in the Midwestern U.S. should run about 65-90% of the time. However, much of the time it will be generating at less than full capacity (see previous answer), making its capacity factor lower.

Availability factor (or just "availability") is a measurement of the reliability of a wind turbine or other power plant. It refers to the percentage of time that a plant is ready to generate (that is, not out of service for maintenance or repairs). Modern wind turbines have an availability of more than 98%-- higher than most other types of power plant. After more than two decades of constant engineering refinement, today's wind machines are highly reliable. (Courtesy American wind association)