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.