Wind-electric systems may be the most captivating of the three main renewable electricity technologies. Most of us just love to watch a wind turbine spin. But these systems are also the most prone to problems, and can be more complicated and expensive to install.
To get you started down the right road in using wind energy, this article will outline the basic system components and types. It will help you understand the systems better, so you will make better choices if you decide that wind energy is right for you.
The wind generator is what actually generates electricity in the system. Most modern wind generators are upwind designs (blades are on the side of the tower that faces into the wind), and couple permanent magnet alternators directly to the rotor (blades). Three-bladed wind generators are most common, providing a good compromise between efficiency and rotor balance.
Small wind turbines protect themselves from high winds (governing) by tilting the rotor up or to the side, or by changing the pitch of the blades. Electricity is transmitted down the tower on wires, most often as three-phase wild alternating current (AC).
It’s called “wild” because the voltage and frequency vary with the rotational speed of the wind turbine. The output is then rectified to direct current (DC) to charge batteries or to be inverted for grid connection.
A wind generator tower is very often more expensive than the turbine. The tower puts the turbine up in the “fuel”—the smooth strong winds that give the most energy. Wind turbines should be sited at least 30 feet (9 m) higher than anything within 500 feet (152 m).
Three common types of towers are tilt-up, fixed-guyed, and freestanding. Towers must be specifically engineered for the lateral thrust and weight of the turbine, and should be adequately grounded to protect your equipment against lightning damage. See my article “Wind Generator Tower Basics” in HP105 for information about choosing a tower.
Most wind turbines have some means of stopping the turbine for repairs, in an emergency, for routine maintenance, or when the energy is not needed. Many turbines have “dynamic braking,” which simply shorts out the three electrical phases and acts as a disconnect. Others have mechanical braking, either via a disc or drum brake, activated by a small winch at the base of the tower. Still others have mechanical furling, which swings the rotor out of the wind. Mechanical braking is usually more effective and reliable than dynamic braking.
A wind-electric charge controller’s primary function is to protect your battery bank from overcharging. It does this by monitoring the battery bank—when the bank is fully charged, the controller sends energy from the battery bank to a dump (diversion) load.
Many wind-electric charge controllers are built into the same box as the rectifiers (AC-to-DC converters). Overcurrent protection is needed between the battery and controller/dump load.
In batteryless grid-tie systems, there is no controller in normal operation, since the inverter is selling whatever energy the turbine is generating. But there will be some control function in the case of grid failure, and there may be electronics before the inverter to regulate the input voltage.
Solar-electric modules can be turned off—open circuited—with no damage. Most wind generators should not run unloaded. They will run too fast and too loud, and may self-destruct. They must be connected to a battery bank or load. So normally, a charge controller that has the capability of being a diversion controller is used. A diversion controller takes surplus energy from the battery bank and sends it to a dump load. In contrast, a series controller (commonly used in PV systems), actually opens the circuit.
A dump load is an electrical resistance heater, and it must be sized to handle the full generating capacity of the wind generator used. These dump loads can be air or water heaters, and are activated by the charge controller whenever the batteries or the grid cannot accept the energy being produced.
Your wind generator will produce electricity whenever the wind blows above the cut-in speed. If your system is off grid, you’ll need a battery bank—a group of batteries wired together—to store energy so you can have electricity when it’s not windy. For off-grid systems, battery banks are typically sized to keep household electricity running for one to three calm days. Grid-intertied systems also can include battery banks to provide emergency backup during blackouts—perfect for keeping critical electric loads operating until the grid is up again.
Use only deep-cycle batteries in wind-electric systems. Lead-acid batteries are the most common battery type. Flooded lead-acid batteries are usually the least expensive, but require adding distilled water occasionally to replenish water lost during the normal charging process. Sealed absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries are maintenance free and designed for grid-tied systems where the batteries are typically kept at a full state of charge. Sealed gel-cell batteries can be a good choice to use in unheated spaces due to their freeze-resistant qualities.
System meters can measure and display several different aspects of your wind-electric system’s performance and status—tracking how full your battery bank is, how much electricity your wind generator is producing or has produced, and how much electricity is in use. Operating your system without metering is like running your car without any gauges—although possible to do, it’s always better to know how much fuel is in the tank.
In battery-based systems, a disconnect between the batteries and inverter is required. This disconnect is typically a large, DC-rated breaker mounted in a sheet metal enclosure. This breaker allows the inverter to be quickly disconnected from the batteries for service, and protects the inverter-to-battery wiring against electrical fires.
Inverters transform the electricity produced by your wind gen-erator into the AC electricity commonly used in most homes for power-ing lights and appli-ances. Grid-tied in-verters synchronize the electricity they produce with the grid’s “utility grade” AC electricity, allowing the system to feed wind electricity to the utility grid.
Grid-tie inverters are either designed to operate with or without batteries. Battery-based inverters for off-grid or grid-tie systems often include a battery charger, which is capable of charging a battery bank from either the grid or a backup generator during cloudy weather.
The AC breaker panel, or mains panel, is the point at which all of a home’s electrical wiring meets with the “provider” of the electricity, whether that’s the grid or a wind-electric system. This wall-mounted panel or box is usually installed in a utility room, basement, garage, or on the exterior of the building. It contains a number of labeled circuit breakers that route electricity to the various rooms throughout a house. These breakers allow electricity to be disconnected for servicing, and also protect the building’s wiring against electrical fires.
Just like the electrical circuits in your home or office, an inverter’s electrical output needs to be routed through an AC circuit breaker. This breaker is usually mounted inside the building’s mains panel. It enables the inverter to be disconnected from either the grid or from electrical loads if servicing is necessary. The breaker also safeguards the circuit’s electrical wiring.
Most homes with a grid-tied wind-electric system will have AC electricity both coming from and going to the electric utility grid. A bidirectional KWH meter can simultaneously keep track of how much electricity you’re using and how much your system is producing. The utility company often provides intertie-capable meters at no cost.
Off-grid wind-electric systems can be sized to provide electricity during calm periods when the wind doesn’t blow. But sizing a system to cover a worst-case scenario, like several calm weeks during the summer, can result in a very large, expensive system that will rarely get used to its capacity, and will run a huge surplus in windy times. To spare your pocketbook, go with at least two sources of energy. Wind–PV hybrid systems are often an excellent fit with local renewable resources. But a backup, fuel-powered generator still may be necessary.
Engine-generators can be fueled with biodiesel, petroleum diesel, gasoline, or propane, depending on the design. Most generators produce AC electricity that a battery charger (either stand-alone or incorporated into an inverter) converts to DC energy, which is stored in batteries. Like most internal combustion engines, generators tend to be loud and stinky, but a well-designed renewable energy system will require running them 50 to 200 hours a year or less.
If you want a simple, reliable, maintenance-free renewable electricity system, buy solar-electric modules. Wind-electric systems are not for the faint-of-heart, and will probably never be a simple “appliance” that you can install and forget about. These are spinning machines in a very harsh environment. You don’t expect your car to operate without maintenance, and you choose and drive it carefully to avoid accidents. The same is true of wind-electric systems—the renewable energy systems that take the most maintenance, and have the highest potential for problems. Wind-electric systems are very satisfying when they work, but very disappointing (and visible) when they don’t.
Don’t buy cheap equipment, and do buy a tall tower! Buy the best turbine for your site, regardless of price, and put it on the tallest tower possible. Investing in quality up front will pay off in the long term. Almost all of the disappointment I hear about from wind energy users is related to buying lightweight equipment for heavy-duty sites, or installing equipment on towers that are not well above surrounding obstructions.
If you do it right, wind energy can be the most satisfying of the renewable energy technologies. There’s nothing quite like watching a wind generator spinning, filling up your battery bank or sending energy to the grid. When the wind blows, you may need to button up your overcoat, but you’ll get a warm feeling, knowing that the wind is working for you.
Ian Woofenden, PO Box 1001, Anacortes, WA 98221