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How Do Wind Turbines Work?

wind turbine in field
As wind energy production increases, we’re becoming more and more aware of the local and global benefits of wind turbines and the energy they produce. However, there is still a lot of myth and speculation surrounding the wind turbines themselves and how they function exactly.  How many wind turbines do you need to generate enough energy for everyone? What happens if there’s no wind? Do wind turbines create disruptive noise for communities? And how exactly do wind turbines create energy at all? The best way to embrace wind energy as the energy of the future is to become knowledgeable about it. We know that wind energy is renewable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. So, it’s time that we learn about the technology that makes this energy production possible: the wind turbine.  The large and powerful figure of these tall, bladed structures is likely familiar to you — but it can also be intimidating. In reality, when you break it down a bit, there are hundreds of smaller components working together to make these monoliths run — and with the gentle turning of their blades comes massive energy production. 

Types of Wind Turbines

No matter the size, there are two basic categories of turbine. The type of turbine is defined by the orientation of the rotor.

Horizontal-axis turbines are most commonly used today. The blades look a lot like an airplane propeller with three, tall blades for generating electricity.

Vertical-axis turbines have blades attached at the top and bottom of a vertical rotor. They don’t perform quite as well as horizontal-axis turbines, so they’re much less common. The type of wind turbine you’re likely most familiar with seeing is the horizontal-axis turbine.

Still, the existence of multiple types of turbine means that we are able to continuously learn about and experiment with wind energy. The more the technology evolves, the better we can capture wind energy for long-term, sustainable energy solutions.

What Makes a Wind Turbine?

You’re most likely familiar with the overall appearance of a wind turbine. It stands tall, usually in a wide open space, and has vast, spinning blades. What’s inside that turbine is what is allowing for the production and capturing of wind energy. In reality, the turbine is only one part of these giant machines.

Other key components of most turbines include the gearbox, the generator, and more.

The Gearbox
The gearbox serves the function of converting the slow rotation of the spinning blades into higher-speed motion. This turns the drive shaft quickly enough to power the generator. 

The Generator
The generator is one of the most important parts of all wind turbines. The spinning blades of the turbine power the generator, which ultimately produces electricity. Without the generator, no energy can be distributed. The generators use the difference in electrical charge to create a change in voltage. This change is the driving force behind the electrical current that is passed through power lines and distributed across the turbine’s grid.

The Tower
Wind turbine towers can be of differing heights, but average about 50m tall. The tallest can be over 200m tall. The tower supports the rotor blades and is usually the largest part of the overall structure. Each tower can weigh over 40 tonnes, making it one of the largest expenses of overall wind turbine installation. However, without the support and height of the tower, the wind turbine simply wouldn’t exist. The wind turbine’s height is one of its key assets. 

Rotor Blades
These blades are affixed to the front of the turbine and look like sails or the wings of a plane. Rotor blades are made out of layers and layers of material meant to withstand weather, sun, and exposure of all kinds. Wind turbine blades can reach speeds of over 250 kilometers per hour when in operation and must therefore be heavily durable. Rotor blades can be made of wood, fibreglass, resin, and carbon, but can be composed of hundreds of layers of material in their final state.

The rotor blades ultimately capture the wind and allow the other components of the wind turbine to transform that wind into energy.

Most turbines have two or three blades. The wind lifts and rotates the blades, which causes the rotor to spin.

How Does a Wind Turbine Work?

So, now that you know the general components of a wind turbine, let’s talk about how these components function together to create energy.

To put it simply, a turbine spins and, by spinning, catches some of the energy passing by. A wind turbine is not the only kind of turbine. We see turbines used in engines, power plants, trains, and even windmills.

If you have a device with spinning blades that generate power, that’s a turbine.

The blades on a wind turbine have a curved shape similar to a plane. However, whereas the wings of a plane are propelled upward when wind blows over them, the blades on a turbine spin around when wind passes over them. The energy in the wind turns the propeller-like blades around a rotor that is connected to a main shaft. The main shaft spins a generator to create electricity.

In general, the longer the rotor blades, the more energy a wind turbine can capture from the wind. Additionally, if the wind is faster, the blades can also capture more energy. The blades are giant and typically span 70m in diameter in order to multiply the wind’s force — much like a wheel and axle. Despite their size, even a gentle breeze can cause the blades to turn.

The size and height of a wind turbine means that they are able to clear any obstructions that exist at ground level like hills, trees, and buildings. Wind travels faster when it’s clear of obstruction. Therefore, the higher the blades are in the air, the more wind energy they are likely to capture.

On a basic level, the wind passing over the blades causes the blades to spin, which allows the blades to capture some of the wind’s energy. As wind blows over the blades, it loses some of its kinetic energy and the turbine gains that energy. The other components of the wind turbine convert that energy into electricity and allow it to be distributed. 

While wind turbines are massive and complex, they accomplish a fairly simple task: “borrowing” from the wind via spinning blades.

How Effective Are Wind Turbines?

Wind turbines are designed to be adaptable to continuously changing wind conditions. In fact, they are more efficient if they are not operating at full speed all the time. Just as you can adjust the speed of your car depending on your needs, preference, or location, a wind turbine adapts to the currently available wind supply and energy demand.
A typical wind turbine is only idle for about 14 percent of the time. They do not generate maximum power all the time, but are instead designed to generate consistent and efficient power over long periods of time. 

While there might not be wind in one area, it’s very likely that there’s wind somewhere else in the area or country. There’s no reason to pack thousands of wind turbines together in one place; instead, they need to be spaced apart and, ideally, evenly distributed in order to maximize energy production. That way, when wind is scarce in one location, wind turbines somewhere else can pick up the slack.

How many wind turbines do we need, then?

This is sometimes seen as a drawback of wind turbines — they take up space and many turbines are needed to generate consistent power. Powering an entire country with wind alone would require a massive amount of space and a huge quantity of wind turbines. However, the space inbetween turbines can be used for other purposes, such as farming, so that no land is truly wasted. While the wind turbines generate sustainable energy in the air, other work can be going on on the ground below.

How Reliable are Wind Turbines?

Additionally, some people argue that wind energy is too unpredictable, as wind patterns are constantly changing. If the wind falls away, will certain areas be left without power?

In reality, just because wind availability is variable does not mean that wind energy is unreliable or unpredictable. It is relatively easy for us to predict weather patterns and utility companies can therefore balance and distribute energy as needed. So, while the power from one wind turbine might fluctuate with the wind, the power produced by the entire network of turbines is much more stable and predictable. 

Again, wind turbines are built to generate even and consistent power. Their connection to a grid means that power can be redistributed as needed. It’s a complete myth that no wind = no power. The reason for this is simply that there is always wind somewhere.

Who Installs and Maintains Wind Turbines?

Wind turbines are installed, inspected, and maintained by teams of highly trained professionals committed to the wind energy industry and other renewable energy projects. When wind turbine maintenance is needed, teams are dispatched to safely and efficiently conduct necessary repairs on the machinery, electronics, and other equipment that keeps the blades spinning.

The Energy of the Future

Wind turbines are installed, inspected, and maintained by teams of highly trained professionals committed to the wind energy industry and other renewable energy projects. When wind turbine maintenance is needed, teams are dispatched to safely and efficiently conduct necessary repairs on the machinery, electronics, and other equipment that keeps the blades spinning.

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