Wind Turbines And Ice: How They’re Tailored For Specific Climates

Wind turbines are incredible pieces of technology, able to harvest wind energy and deliver it to the power grid without carbon emissions. Their constant development since the first one came online in 1939 mean that the number of megawatts produced per turbine continues to rise as price per megawatt-hour of wind energy continues to fall. Additionally, they can operate in almost any climate to reliably generate energy almost anywhere in the world from Canada to the North Atlantic to parts beyond. While the cold snap that plowed through the American South recently might seem to contradict this fact, in reality the loss of wind power during this weather event is partially a result of tradeoffs made during the design of these specific wind farms (and, of course, the specifics of how Texas operates its power grid, but that’s outside the scope of this article) rather than a failure of the technology itself.

First, building wind turbines on the scale of megawatts isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Purchasing a large turbine from a company like GE, Siemens, or Vestas is a lot like buying a car. A make and model are selected first, and then options are selected for these base models. For example, low but consistent wind speeds demand a larger blade that will rotate at a lower speed whereas areas with higher average wind speeds may be able to get by with smaller and less expensive blades for the same amount of energy production. Another common option for turbines is cold weather packages, which include things like heaters for the control systems, hydraulics, and power electronics, additional insulation in certain areas, and de-icing solutions especially for the turbine blades.

In a location like Texas that rarely sees cold temperatures for very long, it’s understandable that the cold weather packages might be omitted to save money during construction (although some smaller heaters are often included in critical areas to reduce condensation or humidity) but also to save on maintenance as well: every part in a wind turbine has to be maintained. Continuing the car analogy, it’s comparable to someone purchasing a vehicle in a cold climate that didn’t come equipped with air conditioning to save money up front, but also to avoid repair costs when the air conditioning eventually breaks. However, there are other side effects beyond cost to be considered when installing equipment that’s designed to improve a turbine’s operation in cold weather.

Let’s dig into the specifics of how wind turbine equipment is selected for a given wind farm.

Good Design Involves Tradeoffs

Improving a turbine’s ability to operate in cold weather may actually decrease its ability to operate in hot weather, which Texas at least is guaranteed to see during large portions of the year. Everything in a turbine generates heat when operating, from the blade pitching equipment to the gearbox and generator to the power electronics which tie them electrically to the grid. Expelling the waste heat in summer is much more important in these places than preparing them for a few days of cold weather that might not even happen in any given year. Typically this waste heat is expelled by means of radiators and cooling fans, whether they are installed on the gearbox, generator, power converter, or other heat-sensitive equipment, and the settings at which the cooling systems activate (if they exist at all) may not be easy or possible to change.

This brings up another consideration with wind energy in Texas specifically. Wind is plentiful in Texas, so it was among the first places in the US to adopt early versions of grid-scale wind turbines, some of which are still in operation. These turbines are much less configurable than modern versions, and it may not be easy or possible to change the various temperature settings in a turbine. That means that in some cases, cooling fans are active all the time, or the turbines are otherwise permanently configured in a way that makes them ideal for use in hot climates but quickly trip offline in cold weather. Even modern turbines will go offline if the internal temperatures reach a set point well below freezing (typically -30 °C/-22 °F) in order to prevent damage (note that if grid operators are aware of the weather they’ll be able to predict the loss of generation and plan for it), but if cooling systems aren’t configured for the cold, vents are still open, or insulation is lacking, these turbines will not be immune to the effects of the cold either.

Fighiting Ice: Electric Heat and Special Paint; But Not Helicopters

Other aspects of wind turbines that impact their abilities to operate in extreme cold is how they deal with ice, specifically on the turbine blades. Carbon-based electrical heaters on the blades are common way to control ice buildup. 2014 images of the helicopter deicing tests in Sweden shown in the video below went viral during the Texas outage, but this technique is not used in Texas and doesn’t seem to have seen much adoption anywhere due to the expenses involved. (Also considering the need to have a pilot and at least two other workers on-site during icy conditions.) Installing blade heaters caries its own cost and, at least for the time being, may only make economic sense in areas that are expected to deal with cold during a significant portion of the year.

Other options include using thermal cameras to sense ice buildup and shut the turbine down if the ice becomes severe. While all of these methods so far require energy inputs in order to de-ice blades, an innovative product from a wind turbine company called Gamesa is producing paint that naturally prevents ice formation, eliminating the need for expensive energy-intensive deicing solutions.

Another example of a company using paint to try to prevent ice buildup on blades is at a wind farm in Canada where the site has painted some blades black in order to increase the amount of UV light absorbed from the sun, hoping to naturally increase the temperature of the blades without any novel technology or energy-intensive solutions. While this method is not as widespread as other methods, it demonstrates an example of a tradeoff between hot and cold climates: painting blades black in Texas, while there is some evidence that it may reduce bird fatalities, presumably would have major downsides when the long summers rolled around and the blades heated up beyond design tolerances.

Human Resources in Cold Weather

While all of these technological solutions to extreme climates are the subject of any news cycle focused on the downsides of wind energy, one of the most important things about the operation of wind turbines is often glossed over when considering operation outside of their intended climate: the people who maintain them have to also be prepared to live and work in that climate as well. If a turbine trips offline for a routine reason during a snow or ice event, most wind technicians at sites in places like Texas don’t have access to snowplows, snowblowers, or snowmobiles to access the turbines like they might if they were working in northern Quebec. They may not live in areas that regularly plow or salt the roads, making it difficult or unsafe to get to the site or turbines at all. Even if the technicians are doing something simple to improve the turbine’s performance in cold weather, like shutting hatch vents or adding insulation, they still need to get to the turbines.

Ice buildup on turbine blades can be thrown or fall on people and equipment if left unchecked. Via

Further, there are some safety issues with ice buildup on turbines as well, namely that it has to go somewhere when it falls off of the turbines. For that reason, most technicians have strict rules on approaching turbines during ice events to prevent any ice from shedding off of the turbine and onto them or their vehicles. In a cold climate that has de-icing systems, however, this issue can be more controlled and predictable, but in a place like Texas this means that an otherwise fixable turbine might be left offline for a much longer time while technicians wait for safer conditions.

In conclusion, we’d like to note that the recent disaster in Texas was not related to any fundamentals of wind energy itself, but rather to other issues with their isolated power grid and the trend of American infrastructure to be in a general state of disrepair. Wind turbines are perfectly capable of producing energy in some of the most extreme cold environments on the planet, provided they (and their operators) are designed and equipped to handle the climate. In fact, since air density is inversely proportional to temperature, turbines in cold climates can produce more energy for a given wind speed than those in hot climates. We should also give Texas a pat on the back for investing so heavily in wind energy. As of 2019 the state had just shy of 25 GW of wind power capacity, the most by far of any other state, and installed capacity continues to rise rapidly. They have an incredible amount of wind energy available and they have not let it go to waste. But winterizing turbines in hot climates, especially older turbines that aren’t as configurable, is often infeasible both from an economic point-of-view and also because the process of designing any product, whether it’s a small toy or a giant wind farm, requires tradeoffs.

75 thoughts on “Wind Turbines And Ice: How They’re Tailored For Specific Climates

    1. Except it wasn’t wind that let us down.

      The overseeing body for the free market power generating plants doesn’t have authority to enforce that plants and related infrastructure are prepared for extreme weather. The majority of those plants are natural gas powered, and many did not prepare their gas distribution and processing equipment to operate in extended cold.

      I can’t fault wind farm operators in Texas for not buying the decicing options. Wind is not a base load power source, so the grid should be able to spin up other sources to meet demand in its absence. Gas is a base load source and must be dependable and available on-demand, otherwise there’s no point.

      1. Texas had the same problems with natural gas in 2011. So much so that their cascading failure cut off gas in neighboring NM where it was a lot colder (-40C in some areas). Apparently nothing got fixed. Cold isn’t new in Texas.

        1. This power failure should have never happened. There was a nearly identical outage in 2011 and FERC did a full root cause analysis to recommend weatherization which both the current and previous governor did nothing about.
          Both Greg Abbott (blaming the green new deal) and Rick Perry ( telling stories about a federal government energy takeover) spent the duration of the outage misleading with nonsense and trying to deflect the responsibility of the outage away from their leadership. I spent over 50 hours without electricity with outdoor temperature approx 14-20. The truth is that there were 48 gigawatts that went offline of which 18 GW were renewable (hydro, solar and wind). So, no it wasn’t caused by the”Green New Deal” or frozen blades and he knew it when he said it. There was a different news release for local stations than for the cable channels.
          The local channels got the message about frozen LNG distribution infrastructure. Cable channels got the story about wind generators.

      2. Agreed. Unfortunately some of the NG plants on standby failed to fire up as the NG froze in some distribution lines. I was fortunate in Temple not to lose power or water but this was a storm of the century type event. Plus, as the article stated, a lot of the wind farms that were erected didn’t even have the option for cold weather operation when they were installed years ago.

        Now, with all of that being said, ERCOT, as well as the State, will be looking back and identifying areas of improvement, especially with the NG plants. The other item that really hurt was the nuclear power plant in Baytown (IIRC) was offline for scheduled maintenance.

          1. Something similar may happen once a decade, but this one really was novel. My town set the new record for the coldest temperature ever seen here, coldest wind chill, and most consecutive days that stayed below freezing. A larger nearby town hit the coldest since 1899.

        1. Perhaps they can adopt a program like OhmConnect to encourage people to conserve during peak times. Base it around open standards and protocols in order to make it easy to automate stuff using low cost devices like Raspberry Pi and ESP8266.

      3. Natural/bio gas plants are indeed an important base for a stable grid.

        Biogas especially since such is already produced in fairly large quantities by many sources. (Though, most of it is just left to outgas into the atmosphere instead of being collected. Collecting it from sewage treatment plants is one of the easiest places to do it. But very few currently do this.)

        One generally shouldn’t rely on wind and solar as a base.
        Wind is though something that technically always blows. (There is some seasonal variations, but largely speaking, wind doesn’t stop. It just moves a few hundred km to one side or another. Ground level wind is also different from wind 100 meters up in the air. So wind can largely be considered a primary supply if spread out sufficiently wide.)

        In general, a grid should though have a diverse set of energy sources.
        As to not depend too heavily on one thing or another.

        Be it the type of fuel used or even power plants in general.

    2. Except you are WrONG! I work in wind: almost all of them in the United States have no way to de ice themselves. Texas turbines around Abilene and Big spring actually have full heating packages in their GE 1.5 MW SLE turbines, many in the north do not.
      Here’s the problem: in the north we don’t get the ice, we get a crap ton of cold

  1. It’s not a one off event. Texas has been told to winterize their power generation for 30 years by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the North American Energy Reliability Commission. They have had winter storms that knocked out power generation both in 2011 and 1989.

    Engineering isn’t just about optimizing for the normal behavior, it’s about preventing catastrophe in abnormal behavior, especially when that “abnormal behavior is a 15 year event.

    1. If the AC itself isn’t winterized, you’re not allowed to turn it on below a certain temperature because the evaporator becomes so cold that it passes liquid coolant back into the compressor, which goes into liquid lock and blows a gasket.

    1. And watch as the clueless plant workers track the radioactive material out of the building on their shoes and it washes into the river. Can’t have nuclear power until you remove the stupid humans. What do you do about the humans who do not obey your rules about nuclear materials?

      1. Expecting humans to safely handle nuclear materials is like the expecting them to always write bug free code. Its like saying that humans are perfect drivers that never get into accidents.

        1. “Most of the cobalt 60 pellets were scooped up by a giant junkyard magnet, mixed in with other scrap metal and taken to two Mexican foundries, where they were melted into steel reinforcement rods and restaurant table legs. Thousands of tons of this ”hot” metal were then shipped throughout Mexico and the United States.”

      2. What? Are you thinking of the Springfield nucleon plant from the Simpsons? Nuclear material laying about to be tracked out on shoes? I suppose you think the clouds from the towers are nuclear smoke from the sun-like furnace inside where the minions in Outer Limits protective lead clothes are shoveling the uranium into the reactor? This sounds like science derived from a combination of The Simpsons and TV from the 1950’s and 60’s.

      3. Just how much “nuclear material” do you think could be tracked unnoticed past (I think it’s safe to assume) Geiger counters at exits, and why would you think there would be a noticeable impact?

        One of the most radioactive places in the US is Grand Central Station, because of radioactive materials that were in the granite when it was quarried.

        Another is Denver, because the “Mile High City” is up above enough of the atmosphere that there’s less shielding from cosmic rays.

    2. All this FUD about nuclear makes me wonder how on earth STILL naval vessels are afloat and more being build.
      After all they are relatively small, fragile and in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

      May be if humans are as “stupid” as posted above perhaps we should put armed forces personnel to manage nuclear plants and it will all be easy. They seem to be doing quite well.

      Or maybe proper training and adherence to protocols (like the naval/military) will do the trick.

      Or perhaps nonsense FUD should stop at once!

  2. “…harvest wind energy and deliver it to the power grid without carbon emissions. ”
    That’s a little naive. There’s a huge amount of carbon dioxide produced in their manufacture and installation: in even a smaller turbine the concrete base alone is responsible for ca. 100 tons of CO2.

    Studies paid for and promoted by the epostles of wind will have you believe the carbon payback is less than a year — presumably assuming the wind energy is displacing coal-produced power. That may even be true.

    1. A very valid point. I am fairly certain that carbon payback is measured in 10´s of years at the very least. Those prop shaft bearings alone take a lot of energy to produce.

      1. However the energy used to run a smelter can ultimately come from renewables. Assuming that the manufacturing chain is supplying windmills to replace dirty power sources upstream (including electrifying transportation and mining equipment), that payback shrinks to nearly zero.

        I say ‘nearly’ as the mechanicals still require oil.

      1. Coal requires massive vehicles and equipment for its transport, an entire polluting industry in and of itself.

        How much concrete does it take to build a maintenance facility to fix coal hauling vehicles?

        1. Around here entire towns have been bulldozed for open pit coal mines. Huge parts of the countryside are barren wasteland now. Wind turbines don’t have nearly the same environmental impact.

  3. Most utility size windmills are not stand-alone systems. They require a stable grid to feed the power into. As soon as the gas plants shut down, the windmills had to shut off. I was involved in one of the first large wind systems in the Altamont Pass in California. That area has about 36 square miles of prime wind land. The power was a nearly perfect match to the peak loading needs of PG&E. During the summer, with all that AC cooling being turned on, that was when the central valley would heat up, drawing in cooler air across San Francisco Bay and funneling through the passes. Our 40 to 90 KW machines look pretty puny now but we were pretty proud of contributing to the power grid. My job was to design the control systems. Every machine had a white control panel at the base with 3 phase, 480 volt 100 amp soft connect and logic making all the decisions about maximizing power output.
    Those were great days and I’m quite happy to see the progress that has been made now.

  4. I wonder if Texas’ isolated power grid actually saved us from a much larger power problem. Some nearby states were also doing rolling power blackouts. Cascading power issues have been seen on the interconnected grids before..

    1. “I wonder if Texas’ isolated power grid actually saved us from a much larger power problem.”

      You’re kindof imagining a situation which can’t exist: as in, Texas’s grid gets hooked up to the rest, and they still have all their plants running exactly the same as they did, and have the same problems. That can’t happen – as *soon* as the grid becomes interstate, everything now falls under FERC regulations. So it’s really hard to imagine what *would* have happened, because the entire grid and power supply setup would be totally differently regulated.

      One thing that *definitely* wouldn’t’ve happened are customers getting thousands of dollars in charges, though.

      “Some nearby states were also doing rolling power blackouts. ”

      Neighboring states – specifically the Southwest Power Pool – were *actually* doing rolling blackouts. For like, an *hour*. Or less. Spread over the area. Which is what “rolling blackout” is supposed to mean – a blackout for short periods to manage load, while not causing large damage.

      Texas did not have “rolling blackouts.” Areas were without power for *days*. That’s not “rolling.” That’s a *shutdown.* The fact that ERCOT came out and was touting that the grid didn’t collapse is hilarious. It’s like forfeiting a game when you’re down 50-0 and claiming “well, we didn’t lose by 100!”

      1. Blackout cascades have happened in recent history, so it’s not unthinkable that this could have been one. But you’re right, it would be hard to predict what a connected grid would look like in Texas, and how it would have handled the storm.

        The thousand dollar+ charges were for customers of Griddy, right? I don’t think any other power company works that way. Griddy let’s customers pay wholesale costs, plus a small markup. It’s a hack, a risk that the customer takes for usually a smaller bill.

        I’m in the SPP and got notices that both my natural gas and my power might fail. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the SPP grid was used to keep the Texas grid running.

        1. Our market price can sometimes go negative, usually in the middle of the night, when there’s too much generation and not enough load. So if that can happen with griddy, they could try working off the bill by turning the heat and AC on at 2AM doing all their laundry and baking bread. :-D

  5. Why address the issue in TX when you can simply increase the price per mmBtu of natural gas from the $ range into the $$$ range? Sure, that doesn’t help the general public, but why start caring about them now?

  6. This could be an application for thermochromic paint. Black or dark color at temperatures below 5C for maximum absorption to melt ice. White or light color above 30C to reflect heat and stay cooler in summer.

  7. I have an idea for them, should they get iced up again before proper de-icing equipment available… gotta check this out with the engineers first, but I would presume that blades can take the energy of a goose flying into them? … so get a baseball pitching machine and try to “ping” the blades on the downstroke with baseballs, hopefully gravity and centrifugal force assist and throw ice off straight at the ground underneath. If baseballs deemed too harsh, tennis ball serving machine?

    1. Interesting idea, though “can tolerate a few times” is different from OK to do repeatedly at a temperature extreme. Cracking seems likely.

      Paintballs filled with de-icing fluid?

    2. I’d go for a nozzle in the top part of the pylon. Turn a blade (and the nacelle) so the blade is in front of the nozzle, and spray. Ice will come down with the spray. Once the blade is clean, as a bonus another blade with ice will move itself down for deicing. Repeat another time and presto. Just have to shovel away the pile of ice. But you can save hiring a helicopter and even a fire truck can pump the de-icing fluid up the pylon.

  8. Say it slowly with me. Time machine. So we can jump to the future, see how to build epstein and hydrogen drives, and bring that tech from 2300 to now.

    Thats the only way to fix our (real) issues.

    …probably a bit too much Expanse, but anyhoo.

  9. Wind energy has been an expensive disaster and not just for Texas. They have built these stupid things in the southern region of the state along the Texas Gulf Coast. We would be better of with a more centralized system of electrical generation plants running on either natural gas or fueled by pebble bed reactors.

    The wind turbines are an eye sore, and require a fossil fueled equipment to keep them running. Never mind the big hole dug in the ground, followed by tons of concrete, the steel tower made with coal and other fossil fuels, and so forth. And when built they always ask for a damn property tax deduction after being subsidized by millions in taxes or lack of thereof to be paid. None of this filters to lower taxes for the property owners.

    These things are mechanical monstrosities that will require either overall and replacement, and again, a fossil fueled powered equipment is required to do these things. The blades have also become a disposal problem since they cannot be recycled in any meaningful sense, and become little more than landfill.

    1. Carbon fibers can be recovered from composite waste by burning off the resin. Some enterprising company needs to make a purpose designed shredder-truck for getting the blades off site cheaply though.

    2. Sounds like you have a grudge against them and bunch of what you state just isn’t true. Decentralized power is a much better solution than centralized, we’ve already tried that already, it’s failed time and again. The only houses that continuously had power in Texas were ones with their own sources, like a Tesla Power Wall. Also I think wind turbines are nice to look at, far better than all your coal and NG plants.

    3. Have you actually seen the eyesore a strip coal mine is? What about an oil leak? No? How about a nuclear accident? No still have the head underground? How about the eyesore of a nuclear waste dump? Pretty ugly by any description. Fossil fools? Just think how ugly all those mega fires have rendered to incredible swathes of country…houses included. Want to see ugly? Ask the farms and towns that have their town water and hround water and rivers polluted including bubbling gasses. All those properties rendered worthless due to fracking…good one isn’t it. I’ll concede that wind turbines although beautiful in a way an airplane wings can be, whole swags of them all over beautiful coast is not good at all but as I said that is minor inconvenience compared to the crap – and that is just me being very polite, that fossilfools have made of our air, land, water and climate.

        1. You can’t build nuclear in time to counter climate change. Each cent put into nuclear can’t be put in renewables. Renewables outprice nuclear. Nuclear can’t quickly react to changing demand. Lately nuclear waste wasn’t too healthy and I vividly remember we were not allowed to eat fresh vegetables for months because a nuclear reactor 2000km away had exploded. Sure, nuclear is your panacee, but we don’t have nuclear right now either.

          By the time we would have nuclear, we’ll have an abundance of renewable and the technology to store the energy for backup, peak shaving and peak performance. If you know where to look, there is a dam to burst on storage of energy. Not only in batteries, but also in Power2X. This allows for changing demand much better than nuclear can and it can be used distributedly rather than central so power to the people (and not the utility).

        2. Hi Dan, sorry but nuclear is never the answer. It’s output is lethal for hundreds of years, pretty much all accidents lead to potentially making large tracts of land uninhabitable and we have yet to see any of the decommissioned plants rendered accessible let alone rehabilitated. And, of course their waste products will never be able to be rehabilitated. Imagine how much worse we’d be is co2 gave you cancer and could not be rendered harmless or half harmless in any of our generations lifetimes? If nuclear is the answer then you’re asking the wrong questions….. is more true than ever.

  10. Did you interview anyone from Siemens Gamesa (it’s not Gamesa anymore) to find out if Bladeshield is even offered? The press release you linked to about it was dated 2014 and there is no mention of Bladeshield on their site at all.

  11. The water lines in Texas houses froze up during the cold weather. That’s a problem. Conclusion: people shouldn’t live in houses. Oh, right, they run the water lines through the attic. Good idea when it never gets well below freezing. Otherwise, not so good. Same as anything, what works 99% of the time is fine, except when it isn’t.

      1. Late 70s, possibly Jan ’79, ours froze up in the attic in a period of subzero temps, I think coal deliveries were held up too, not sure we had central heat by then, my Dad had to go up and bust up the ice… sometime soon after we had the tank replaced, so maybe got damaged.

  12. Dear Texans how about putting up 5kw solar systems on your roofs? With inverters capable of running local loads without the grid and a small wind turbine you would have had power on most days and with wind some power during the nights. Maybe enough to run a few medium sized electric radiators, charge your phones, laptops, lights and tv so you could keep abreast of news and alerts and keep each other company through these trying times. Maybe get this going as soon as you can so you’re prepared for the next storm/grid/heat/economic disaster and in the mean time they are cutting down your spending on grid power and even some gas giving you some autonomy in this unstable world.

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