Power Freeze: Ice Isn’t Nice to Wind Turbines

We all know that we need to use renewable energy as much as possible in the coming years, thanks to fossil fuel shortages and the ever-present shadow of climate change. But this poses a few problems for some areas, particularly cold regions: how can they generate power off the grid without fossil fuels?

Solar power is useless in bad weather and is limited during polar winters, hydro power needs rivers not to freeze over in cold weather and geothermal power isn’t easy to harvest. So the logical choice would be wind power, right? It works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and generates even more power in high, alpine altitudes.

But there is a problem. And this problem can be succinctly illustrated by this scene from Iron Man.

In very cold and humid environments, ice will slowly form on any surface, messing with aerodynamics and mechanical components; this can have catastrophic consequences, and not just for Tony Stark. A paper from the University of Quebec has found that the potential power loss from icing on wind turbines can be as much as 40% in extremely cold weather or heavy snowstorms. That’s a loss of more than a megawatt of power for each turbine.

A megawatt could power 200 houses. So if a whole wind farm ices over, entire communities can black out.

Are there any solutions? The new bladeless wind turbines which vibrate in the air instead of turning a generator could work, but they can suffer from the same icing problems as well, and there’s very little knowledge of how they behave seeing as they’re a relatively new design.

Fortunately, the Quebecois researchers have come up with a cheap and simple solution themselves; taking a leaf from aircraft safety, they have suggested adding an icing sensor to the turbines, around 40% along the length of the blade. When the sensor trips, an ice protection system is initiated along the remaining 60% of the blade to stop more ice forming and keep power generation up.

Perhaps Tony Stark could find one handy.

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