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Power Control of Wind Turbines

Wind turbines are designed to produce electrical energy as cheaply as possible. Wind turbines are therefore generally designed so that they yield maximum output at wind speeds around 15 metres per second. (30 knots or 33 mph). Its does not pay to design turbines that maximise their output at stronger winds, because such strong winds are rare.
In case of stronger winds it is necessary to waste part of the excess energy of the wind in order to avoid damaging the wind turbine. All wind turbines are therefore designed with some sort of power control. There are two different ways of doing this safely on modern wind turbines.

Pitch Controlled Wind Turbines
Pitching Turbine CartoonOn a pitch controlled wind turbine the turbine's electronic controller checks the power output of the turbine several times per second. When the power output becomes too high, it sends an order to the blade pitch mechanism which immediately pitches (turns) the rotor blades slightly out of the wind. Conversely, the blades are turned back into the wind whenever the wind drops again.
The rotor blades thus have to be able to turn around their longitudinal axis (to pitch) as shown in the picture.
Note, that the picture is exaggerated:
During normal operation the blades will pitch a fraction of a degree at a time - and the rotor will be turning at the same time.
Designing a pitch controlled wind turbine requires some clever engineering to make sure that the rotor blades pitch exactly the amount required. On a pitch controlled wind turbine, the computer will generally pitch the blades a few degrees every time the wind changes in order to keep the rotor blades at the optimum angle in order to maximise output for all wind speeds.
The pitch mechanism is usually operated using hydraulics.

Stall Controlled Wind Turbines
(Passive) stall controlled wind turbines have the rotor blades bolted onto the hub at a fixed angle.
The geometry of the rotor blade profile, however has been aerodynamically designed to ensure that the moment the wind speed becomes too high, it creates turbulence on the side of the rotor blade which is not facing the wind as shown in the picture on the previous page. This stall prevents the lifting force of the rotor blade from acting on the rotor.
If you have read the section on aerodynamics and aerodynamics and stall, you will realise that as the actual wind speed in the area increases, the angle of attack of the rotor blade will increase, until at some point it starts to stall.
If you look closely at a rotor blade for a stall controlled wind turbine you will notice that the blade is twisted slightly as you move along its longitudinal axis. This is partly done in order to ensure that the rotor blade stalls gradually rather than abruptly when the wind speed reaches its critical value. (Other reasons for twisting the blade are mentioned in the previous section on aerodynamics).
The basic advantage of stall control is that one avoids moving parts in the rotor itself, and a complex control system. On the other hand, stall control represents a very complex aerodynamic design problem, and related design challenges in the structural dynamics of the whole wind turbine, e.g. to avoid stall-induced vibrations. Around two thirds of the wind turbines currently being installed in the world are stall controlled machines.

Active Stall Controlled Wind Turbines
An increasing number of larger wind turbines (1 MW and up) are being developed with an active stall power control mechanism.
Technically the active stall machines resemble pitch controlled machines, since they have pitchable blades. In order to get a reasonably large torque (turning force) at low wind speeds, the machines will usually be programmed to pitch their blades much like a pitch controlled machine at low wind speeds. (Often they use only a few fixed steps depending upon the wind speed).
When the machine reaches its rated power, however, you will notice an important difference from the pitch controlled machines: If the generator is about to be overloaded, the machine will pitch its blades in the opposite direction from what a pitch controlled machine does. In other words, it will increase the angle of attack of the rotor blades in order to make the blades go into a deeper stall, thus wasting the excess energy in the wind.
One of the advantages of active stall is that one can control the power output more accurately than with passive stall, so as to avoid overshooting the rated power of the machine at the beginning of a gust of wind. Another advantage is that the machine can be run almost exactly at rated power at all high wind speeds. A normal passive stall controlled wind turbine will usually have a drop in the electrical power output for higher wind speeds, as the rotor blades go into deeper stall.
The pitch mechanism is usually operated using hydraulics or electric stepper motors.
As with pitch control it is largely an economic question whether it is worthwhile to pay for the added complexity of the machine, when the blade pitch mechanism is added.

Other Power Control Methods
Some older wind turbines use ailerons (flaps) to control the power of the rotor, just like aircraft use flaps to alter the geometry of the wings to provide extra lift at takeoff.
Another theoretical possibility is to yaw the rotor partly out of the wind to decrease power. This technique of yaw control is in practice used only for tiny wind turbines (1 kW or less), as it subjects the rotor to cyclically varying stress which may ultimately damage the entire structure.



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© Copyright 1999 Soren Krohn. All rights reserved.
Updated 6 August 2000