What is Wind Electricity?
Wind energy is a dynamic if invisible resource—the energy available in a moving mass of air. From grain grinding by simple wind-driven machines in ancient cultures to modern electricity-generating devices, the wind has been tapped to work for us.
Wind is a cubic energy resource. As the wind speed increases, the power available increases cubically. This means that it’s very important to get into higher wind speeds, and the way we do that is with taller towers. Regardless of the turbine or tower type, going higher is the tried-and-true, reliable way to increase performance in a wind generator. And the most common mistake in wind electricity is installing a turbine on a short tower.
The swept area of a wind turbine is the second most important factor (after the wind resource itself) that determines energy production. The circle “swept” by the blades is the collector area. It’s not possible to get a large amount of energy out of a small collector area. Betz’ theorem says we can only get about 60% of the energy out of the wind before we start slowing it down too much and actually decreasing performance. In the real world, well-designed machines can achieve about half of that.
Turbines can be divided by orientation, directionality, generating mode, and by other characteristics. Horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWTs) are the most common and effective orientation. Vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs) may appeal to the uninitiated, but continue to disappoint as far as performance and longevity—both of the machines and the companies. Upwind (the wind hits the turbine before it hits the tower) and downwind (the wind hits the tower before it hits the turbine) designs can both be very effective.
Generating devices generally fall into one of three categories. Most home-scale turbines use permanent magnet generators (PMGs), which typically have fixed coils of copper wire and rotating groups of magnets that pass by them. Some older machines use wound-field alternators, which use a small amount of the wind energy to create electro-magnetism in the rotating part of the alternator. Induction motor/generators use conventional induction motors, but have the wind push them beyond their normal operating speed, which takes them from using electricity to making electricity.
Three basic tower types are used for residential wind-electric systems. Freestanding towers are the most expensive, but can be installed in very close quarters, and are perhaps the safest to install and maintain. Tilt-up towers allow all maintenance and repair to be done on the ground, but require a large open area for installation and use. Fixed-guyed towers include lattice and pole styles that do not tilt, and must be climbed for installation and service. These are typically the least costly, and need a moderate area for installation.
A wind-electric system is much more than just the wind generator and tower. Also required are transmission wiring, electronic controls, batteries if storage or backup is desired, an inverter for household AC or grid-interconnect, as well as metering, overcurrent protection, and other standard electrical components. All appropriate components should be chosen for compatibility and functionality—it takes a whole system to make wind electricity.