Wind Energy Basics

What is wind energy?

In reality, wind energy is a converted form of solar energy. The sun's radiation heats different parts of the earth at different rates-most notably during the day and night, but also when different surfaces (for example, water and land) absorb or reflect at different rates. This in turn causes portions of the atmosphere to warm differently. Hot air rises, reducing the atmospheric pressure at the earth's surface, and cooler air is drawn in to replace it. The result is wind.

Air has mass, and when it is in motion, it contains the energy of that motion("kinetic energy"). Some portion of that energy can converted into other forms mechanical force or electricity that we can use to perform work.

What is a wind turbine and how does it work?

A wind energy system transforms the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical energy that can be harnessed for practical use. Mechanical energy is most commonly used for pumping water in rural or remote locations-the "farm windmill" still seen in many rural areas of the U.S. is a mechanical wind pumper- but it can also be used for many other purposes (grinding grain, sawing, pushing a sailboat, etc.). Wind electric turbines generate electricity for homes and businesses and for sale to utilities.

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).

  1981 1985 1990 1996 1999 2000
Rotor (meters) 10 17 27 40 50 71
Rating (KW) 25 100 225 550 750 1,650
Annual MWh 45 220 550 1,480 2,200 5,600

The electricity generated by a utility-scale wind turbine is normally collected and fed into utility power lines, where it is mixed with electricity from other power plants and delivered to utility customers. Today (August 2005), turbines with capacities as large as 5,000 kW (5 MW) are being tested.

What are wind turbines made of?

The towers are mostly tubular and made of steel. The blades are made of fiberglass-reinforced polyester or wood-epoxy.

How big is a wind turbine?

Utility-scale wind turbines for land-based wind farms come in various sizes, with rotor diameters ranging from about 50 meters to about 90 meters, and with towers of roughly the same size. A 90-meter machine, definitely at the large end of the scale at this writing (2005), with a 90-meter tower would have a total height from the tower base to the tip of the rotor of approximately 135 meters (442 feet).

Offshore turbine designs now under development will have larger rotors—at the moment, the largest has a 110-meter rotor diameter—because it is easier to transport large rotor blades by ship than by land.

Small wind turbines intended for residential or small business use are much smaller. Most have rotor diameters of 8 meters or less and would be mounted on towers of 40 meters in height or less.

How much electricity can one wind turbine generate?

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. The average U.S. household consumes about 10,000 kWh of electricity each year.

Example: A 250-kW turbine installed at the elementary school in Spirit Lake, Iowa, provides an average of 350,000 kWh of electricity per year, more than is necessary for the 53,000-square-foot school. Excess electricity fed into the local utility system earned the school $25,000 in its first five years of operation. The school uses electricity from the utility at times when the wind does not blow. This project has been so successful that the Spirit Lake school district has since installed a second turbine with a capacity of 750 kW.

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 6 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).

How many turbines does it take to make one megawatt (MW)?

Most manufacturers of utility-scale turbines offer machines in the 700-kW to 2.5-MW range. Ten 700-kW units would make a 7-MW wind plant, while 10 2.5-MW machines would make a 25-MW facility. In the future, machines of larger size will be available, although they will probably be installed offshore, where larger transportation and construction equipment can be used. Units up to 5 MW in capacity are now under development.

How many homes can one megawatt of wind energy supply?

An average U.S. household uses about 10,655 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each year. One megawatt of wind energy can generate from 2.4 to more than 3 million kWh annually. Therefore, a megawatt of wind generates about as much electricity as 225 to 300 households use. It is important to note that since the wind does not blow all of the time, it cannot be the only power source for that many households without some form of storage system. The "number of homes served" is just a convenient way to translate a quantity of electricity into a familiar term that people can understand. (Typically, storage is not needed, because wind generators are only part of the power plants on a utility system, and other fuel sources are used when the wind is not blowing. According to the U.S. Department of Energy , "When wind is added to a utility system, no new backup is required to maintain system reliability." Wind Energy Myths .

What is a wind power plant?

The most economical application of wind electric turbines is in groups of large machines (660 kW and up), called "wind power plants" or "wind farms." For example, a 107-MW wind farm near the community of Lake Benton, Minn., consists of turbines sited far apart on farmland along windy Buffalo Ridge. The wind farm generates electricity while agricultural use continues undisturbed.

Wind plants can range in size from a few megawatts to hundreds of megawatts in capacity. Wind power plants are "modular," which means they consist of small individual modules (the turbines) and can easily be made larger or smaller as needed. Turbines can be added as electricity demand grows. Today, a 50-MW wind farm can be completed in 18 months to two years. Most of that time is needed for measuring the wind and obtaining construction permits—the wind farm itself can be built in less than six months.

What is "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.

  Actual amount of power produced over 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 maintenance. A capacity factor of 40% to 80% is typical for conventional plants.

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 in this respect.

If a wind turbine's capacity factor is 33%, doesn't that mean it is only running one-third of the time?

No. 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.

What is "availability" or "availability factor"?

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.

Source: American Wind Energy Association

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