SYRACUSE (TNS) — Texas Republicans were quick to blame the state’s wind turbines for the massive power outages that millions of Texans experienced this week during an unusual blast of cold weather.
Texas leads the nation in wind power, with nearly 15,000 wind turbines producing 23% of the Lone Star State’s electricity last year. Many of the turbines shut down when the cold descended on Texas this week.
It turns out that only a third of the power outages in the state resulted from wind turbines failing in the cold. Power plants that use fossil fuels — coal and natural gas — accounted for two-thirds of the power outages.
But why do wind turbines in cold-weather states like New York operate in the winter with seemingly little trouble when their counterparts in Texas can’t?
The huge Maple Ridge Wind Farm operates year-round in the Tug Hill area north of Syracuse, famous for its bitter cold winters that often pile up 200 inches or more of snow.
Amy Kurt, senior manager of regional government affairs for EDP Renewables, which operates Maple Ridge and is the largest wind-power operator in New York, said turbines in the North are equipped to handle the cold and, even more importantly, the ice that often comes with the cold.
“There are a variety of cold weather and anti-icing technologies that are used on wind turbines in the coldest regions,” she said. “These technologies help prevent the build up of ice on turbine blades, detect ice when it cannot be prevented and remove ice safely when it is detected.”
Ice clinging to the blades of a wind turbine pose big problems. It adds weight and can throw the spinning blades out of balance, potentially damaging vital gear mechanisms. It also can change the aerodynamics of the blades, preventing the wind from making them turn.
Kurt said EDP’s turbines are equipped with sensors that detect the presence of ice by sensing the imbalance the ice causes.
“When there’s an imbalance, we know something is not right,” she said.
The sensors can even tell which blades have ice on them and which ones don’t. When ice is detected, heating elements inside the blades turn on to melt the ice.
For safety reasons, the turbines are shut down while the heating elements melt off the ice, Kurt said. That way, there’s no chance of ice flying off spinning blades, potentially damaging the turbines or, worse, striking someone on the ground, she said.
“We’d rather the ice drop below the turbine,” she said.
Once the ice is removed, the turbines are turned back on and the blades can safely spin in the wind again.
In Texas, wind turbines are not equipped with such de-icing packages because operators there never expected to need them, Kurt said.
“Turbines in Texas are built for the type of temperatures they usually get in Texas, where it’s 110 degrees, not 10 degrees,” she said. “It’s a cost thing.”