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Researchers take a closer look at vertical-axis wind turbines for offshore applications

31 July 2012

The US Sandia National Laboratories’ wind energy researchers are re-evaluating vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) to help solve some of the problems of more conventional turbine designs.

Sandia engineers have narrowed their search down to a single, most-workable design for a VAWT turbine-blade. The work is not yet complete, but the early favourite for further testing is the Darrieus design. (Illustration by Josh Paquette and Matt Bar

The economics of offshore windpower are different from land-based turbines, due to installation and operational challenges. VAWTs offer three big advantages that could reduce the cost of wind energy: a lower turbine centre of gravity; reduced machine complexity; and better scalability to very large sizes. A lower center of gravity means improved stability afloat and lower gravitational fatigue loads.

Additionally, the drivetrain on a VAWT is at or near the surface, potentially making maintenance easier and less time-consuming. Fewer parts, lower fatigue loads and simpler maintenance all lead to reduced maintenance costs.

“VAWTs are elegant in terms of their mechanical simplicity,” said Josh Paquette, one of Sandia’s two principal investigators on the project. “They have fewer parts because they don’t need a control system to point them toward the blowing wind to generate power.”

These characteristics fit the design constraints for offshore wind: the high cost of support structures; the need for simple, reliable designs; and economic scales that demand larger machines than current land-based designs.

Large offshore VAWT blades in excess of 300 meters will cost more to produce than blades for onshore wind turbines. But as the machines and their foundations get bigger — closer to the 10–20MW scale — turbines and rotors represent a much smaller percentage of the overall system cost for offshore turbines, so other benefits of the VAWT architecture could more than offset the increased rotor cost.

However, challenges remain before VAWTs can be used for large-scale offshore power generation. Curved VAWT blades are complex, making manufacture difficult. Producing very long VAWT blades demands innovative engineering solutions. Matt Barone, the project’s other principal investigator, said partners Iowa State University and TPI Composites will explore new techniques to enable manufacture of geometrically complex VAWT blade shapes at an unprecedented scale, but at acceptable cost.

VAWT blades must also overcome problems with cyclic loading on the drivetrain. Unlike horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWTs), which maintain a steady torque if the wind remains steady, VAWTs have two “pulses” of torque and power for each blade, based on whether the blade is in the upwind or downwind position. This “torque ripple” results in unsteady loading, which can lead to drivetrain fatigue. The project will evaluate new rotor designs that smooth out the amplitude of these torque oscillations without significantly increasing rotor cost.

Another challenge is braking. Older VAWT designs didn’t have an aerodynamic braking system, and relied solely on a mechanical braking system that is more difficult to maintain and less reliable than the aerodynamic brakes used on HAWTs.

HAWTS use pitchable blades, which stop the turbine within one or two rotations without damage to the turbine and are based on multiple redundant, fail-safe designs. Barone said new VAWT designs will need robust aerodynamic brakes that are reliable and cost-effective, with a secondary mechanical brake much like on modern-day HAWTs. Unlike HAWT brakes, new VAWT brakes won’t have actively pitching blades, which have their own reliability and maintenance issues.

In addition to rotor designs, the project will consider different foundation designs. Early candidates are barge designs, tension-leg platforms and spar buoys.

For more information on Sandia National Laboratories’ energy work, click here

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